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Knowing When to Automate Your Secondary Packaging Line

Jerry Buckley
South Central Regional Sales Manager
BluePrint Automation (BPA)

In today’s tight workforce environment, it seems that automating the end of the line would be a no brainer. Why don’t more producers invest in the back of the line packaging process?

For the same reason we don’t change personally, change is hard!  We are creatures of habit, plus we are all very busy.  Often change does not occur until we feel some significant pain.  In the food industry, that pain could be the loss of an important customer because you could not fulfill their order due to a lack of staff on the 2nd or 3rd shift.  Or, not reaching your profit margins for the year and having to lay off staff because the cash-flow did not come in as expected.  Or, because you had to run your lines slow due to lack of workers at the end of the line that dictated the pace of the line.  If there is pain involved, things start to change.  There are also some practical reasons for not automating the back of the line such as lack of space and the company has no intention of expanding the space.

How do manufacturers determine whether to install a semi-automated system at the end of the line vs. going completely automated with case erecting, packing, sealing and labeling?

It really comes down to speed of the line being reviewed and justification based on the number of employee’s hand erecting, loading and sealing cases.  Generally, if there is only 1 person per shift collating products and loading them into cases (and at least another person erecting / taping case bottoms and another folding and sealing case top flaps) then often just a semi-automatic approach is chosen to provide some level of product inspection.  If more than one employee per shift is required for collating product and loading cases, then full automation may make more sense.  Repetitive motion issues with employees and difficulty with manual product collation could lead to full automation as well.

When it comes to case packing and the end of the line, what systems are the proverbial low-hanging fruit?

When there are larger quantities of products in a case (i.e. 12 count cases), this typically uses multiple employees to pack those items into cases which may be a tight fit.  So often automation is quickly reviewed for larger count cases.

What have been the biggest advances in case packing technology over the past 10 years?

With Vision Guided Robotics becoming more user friendly for operators, this offers plants more advantages and flexibility for packing various products and patterns that were not possible in the past.

How do you calculate the ROI when it comes to case packing? In addition to reducing headcount, what other factors should bakers incorporate into their calculations?  

ROI varies depending on the client’s benefits, labor rates and number of shifts.  So, no set formula.  Other factors include the ability (or inability) to get and keep hand-packers and the issues a company faces with repetitive motion injuries.

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