Most consumer packaged goods are manufactured using packaging machines. Whether they are large or small, these machines are big business. The global packaging machinery market was valued at more than $39 billion in 2016 and is expected to top $62 billion by 2023. This machinery makes most consumer packaged goods possible, because if a product cannot be efficiently manufactured, sales will be limited and, thus, its life will be cut short. Automatic packaging lines—and the machines which are linked together to create those lines—are used to produce products at a rate that makes them viable in the marketplace. For the most part, packaging lines are comprised of three sections: first, the front of the line (getting the product and packaging materials to the line); second, the middle of the line (getting the product into the package); and third, the end of the line (getting the packaged product ready to be shipped). The machines used in each part of the process vary, depending on what they are used for, whether they are depalletizers (using automation to efficiently unload products on pallets), orienters (automation used to orient parts to be placed in the best position on the line), fillers (automation that fills containers with products), labelers (automation used to accurately place labels on products), case packers (automation used to pack cases on a line) or unitizers (separating products on a line into units). Automation aids, including human/machine interfaces (HMIs), and motion-control devices, help to monitor and improve the efficiency of the machines on assembly lines.

 

At Pioneer Packaging Worldwide, we utilize the latest in machinery and automation available to the packaging industry. We like to stay abreast of the latest trends to deliver cutting-edge packaging solutions to our clients. One of the sectors of packaging technology we’re keeping a close eye on is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) on packaging equipment and processing lines. This burgeoning field holds great promise for higher efficiencies, better quality, and improved safety. AI is adept at meeting a number of engineering-related goals, such as better predictive maintenance, zero downtime, clear traceability related to standards compliance, and higher levels of worker engagement. “Smart” devices (such as motors, sensors, controllers and more, that impart improved algorithms to conveyors, robots, and checkweighers) can engage workers, not replace them. The end result should be to automate tasks—not replace workers.

“We still remain far from general AI that can wholly take over complex tasks, but we have now entered the realm of AI-augmented work and decision science—what we call ‘augmented intelligence,’” according to Chris Howard, distinguished research vice president at the research firm Gartner. “If you are a CIO and your organization doesn’t use AI, chances are high that your competitors do and this should be a concern,” he adds.

AI is poised to have a huge impact on the packaging industry. “AI is a set of data-processing techniques that go beyond traditional algorithms connecting cause and effect, observation and action, to a higher level of processing emphasizing pattern recognition, adaptive control and prediction,” according to the Chuck Lewin, president of Massachusetts-based Performance Motion Devices. “In the context of packaging equipment, AI operates in three steps,” he said, adding, “it inputs data from sensors, analyzes that data and then alters its own operation based on the results of that analysis. The key is collecting a lot of data, even of variables that may not be directly related to the process being controlled.” Lewin continues, “As applied to packaging equipment, AI will improve system performance in several key areas. Lines will handle a wider range of incoming materials, they will provide more precise inspection of the materials they handle and they will monitor their own behavior so that required maintenance can be predicted,” he concluded.

There are several factors that are converging to make AI so important today, and for the future. These include:

Bigger data. A large number of devices have delivered us extensive data to process, both structured (in databases and spreadsheets) and unstructured (in text, images, audio, and video.) As literally trillions of sensors are activated in both manufacturing and manufactured products, “big data” is only bound to get bigger. Using AI to assist in processing this information enables us to discover historical patterns, predict more efficiently, and make real-time adjustments.   

Processing power. It’s easier, and cheaper, than ever to handle large volumes of data with complex AI-empowered systems through parallel processing, using accelerating technologies like cloud computing and graphics processing units. In the future, “deep learning” chips will push parallel computation further.

A connected globe. Global manufacturing supply chains, combined with social media platforms, have changed how we interact, and what information we can expect and when we can expect it. The Internet of Things (IoT) is accelerating the spread of information and encouraging the sharing of knowledge. “Collective intelligence” will include open-source communities that developing AI tools and share applications.

Improved algorithms. Dramatic advances have been made in a number of aspects on AI, especially in “deep learning”, where layers of neural networks are designed to imitate the human brain’s approach to processing information and also in “deep reinforcement”, in which the AI agent learns with little or no initial input data by trial and error optimized by a reward function.

Open-source software and data. Open-source software is speeding up the use of AI, as demonstrated in the increasing popularity of open-source machine-learning standards. This can lead to spending less time on routine coding and wider application of emerging AI tools.

 

There is a new line of robotic end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) equipment. This is designed to allow customers to build automated tooling systems to fit their specific applications. This equipment includes products in a variety of sizes and dimensions and can be used to handle fragile products and materials, or produce fine design details. Producers can choose from a full assortment of EOAT components, designed from the ground up to put together an automated handling/gripping system designed for a specific palletizing or packaging or job.

 

There are advancements being made in the premade-pouch fillers/sealers sector of packaging. This is being driven by the desire to develop packaging with less waste and greater operational efficiency, including improved infeed systems. “The laminated stand-up pouch segment has exploded over the past five to 10 years. Never before have we seen so many innovations in terms of material structures and bag features, including barrier films, high-respiration films, specialty closures, fitments/spouts, shapes, and sizes,” according to Mike Burnett, senior product manager at Automated Packaging Systems. “This innovation in flexible packaging materials has also driven the need for innovation in the form, fit and function of the machinery used to package customer products in the most efficient and effective ways possible,” he continued.

“Packaging machinery buyers/users are constantly being challenged by ever-increasing labor costs and ever-decreasing labor availability. We’ve seen a significant increase in the demand for more custom, integrated systems in which our bagging machinery is fully integrated with various types of automatic infeeds—counters, weighers, fillers, and robotics. Having the capability to use automatic infeeds significantly reduces the number of people required to operate each piece of equipment on the packing line,” Burnett added.

A Japanese firm is making major inroads this sector. “We distribute the Toyo Jidoki brand. A recent advancement is a new recycle-pouch option. When a bag is not filled, instead of just dropping, the bag continues through each rotary station without being sealed or dispensed. The bag continues through the next cycle and is then filled, sealed and dispensed the second time around,” said Troy Snader, vice president at Matrix/ProMach, adding, “another advancement is in the adjustability of the heights of the pouches and seal bar/cooling bar. This allows for much greater flexibility with zipper pouches. Yet another advanced feature is the ‘pause’ mode. In this mode, if a pouch is opened, the process will pause or wait for the fill, as needed. That way you remove the possibility of an empty pouch.”

Getting things done faster is a major consideration, according to R. Charles Murray, CEO of PPi Technologies Group. “The marketplace has called for more speed, and our new servo-driven PSG LEE fill-and-seal machines run at 120 per minute,” he said, adding, “supplying prepared home food products as kits have created the need for two-compartment pouches. Amazon is pushing online delivery of healthy food kits—home deliveries have doubled in the past year. We can fill, in duplex, two pouches at a time, each with two compartments, and also up to four different products at a time. The scale feeds these products. We can also gas flush to extend shelf life.”

Pioneer Packaging Worldwide combines technology with dependable packaging machinery to deliver the highest level of dependability and technology to our clients. We are proud to be the industry leader in providing mechanical-packaging system solutions for our clients, utilizing equipment ranging from entry-level machinery to full automation. Plus, we provide qualified technicians to install, adjust and perform routine maintenance on our products. Contact us today for answers to all your packaging questions.