Blog : It takes more than just conveying to integrate a line.

Packaging Line Whisperers

The uptake of Industry 4.0, where data from each sensor, product and machine on a packaging line is fed into higher-level management systems is putting pressure on manufacturers to modernise.

Perhaps now is the time to consider that new case packer, palletiser or stretch wrapper—or even a fully integrated traceability solution.

Once you assess the market and select new equipment for your production line, you’ll probably be fairly confident that, for the money, it’s best-in-breed. You imagine it working seamlessly with your existing machinery.

All you need to do is install it. Yes?

Not quite.

Balancing a packaging line to run at optimal speed and function is a skillset all on its own.

The key to mastering balance and maximising the benefits of your new equipment is integration.

Not all integrators are equal

Integration of packaging machinery into full packaging lines requires whole-plant expertise and—to do it really well—mechanical, electrical and software skills along with automation expertise.

Integration can just mean ‘the joining of single machines together with conveyors’, or it can refer to a holistic systems-based approach that creates a machine ecosystem with ‘eyes’ and a ‘brain’.

The aim of any good line integrator is to transform your packaging operation from a series of stand-alone bits of automation into a fully integrated unit using a unified ‘language’ reporting to a single command point. Doing that well requires extra skill—and programming expertise.

Limiting bottlenecks

Your shiny new piece of equipment will only operate as fast and efficiently as the upstream and downstream machines.

Machines will always break down or require material replenishment. Optimising the line balance minimises the impact when this happens. The trick is to maximise critical machine production by maintaining a steady flow of product along the entire production line. Most likely, its optimal functioning will depend on proper ‘V curve’ speeds, increasing available accumulation and improving machine restart times.

An example of this would be a filler that stops 3 times per hour for an average of 2 minutes per stoppage.

3 x 2 = 6 minutes stoppage per hour or 10% line efficiency.

Providing that the infrastructure and accumulation is in place, it is normally possible to recover >50% of these losses on a line that has not been previously balanced.

Machine to machine communication

Getting all the equipment on a line “talking” to each other is a top priority.

The best integrators will ensure that the machine software is correctly programmed, that it works together with every machine on the line, which in turn works with all the others.

At every juncture, there will be an electronic “handshake” that signals the next piece of equipment to take over. If the timing isn’t perfect, a fault could be detected and operations suspended.

Integrating each of the machines—fillers, case erectors, shrink wrappers, labellers, case packers and sealers, conveyors, palletisers etc—to do their job at the right time and the right speed is an art. Without proper integration, equipment jams and backlogs can develop. At worst, the line ceases to function.

Small stoppages add up over days to hours of lost production.

And then there’s digitisation

The march of progress is inevitable – Industry 4.0 creates full transparency across supply chains and is a prerequisite for traceability initiatives.

However, most older machines are locked into legacy protocols that make it difficult to connect them to an Internet of Things (IoT) solution to mine their valuable data. An all-new line is an expensive way out.

It is possible to integrate both old and new equipment on a packaging line, but it does require a particular skill set.

It’s inadvisable to use a band-aid approach by layering a simple data-mining protocol on top of old equipment to create an IoT solution. Legacy machines were not designed for the multiple data points required by modern IoT and management systems, and the security risks outweigh the benefits.

Using high-level control architecture and open-source packaging machinery language, it is possible to work through OEM proprietary platforms and network them for access to useful, translatable data.

When choosing an integrator, be aware that not all integrators handle all mechanical, electrical, software and automation aspects of a project. And even less specialise in this kind of programming.

Use an all-in-one integrator

A good integrator can also help you select the right equipment for your needs.

No machine works perfectly for every application, so you want an integrator that will walk you through all the options despite their OEM agreements and partnerships (most have them). Equipment should be selected based on its ability to meet the application challenge and long-term return on investment. Your integrator should have enough experience to be able to find machines with the features and accessories you do need—minus the ones you don’t.

Using an integrator that offers project management means that OEM suppliers are negotiated with and deliveries managed; the equipment is installed correctly, integrated with the entire line and an overarching control system if required, and then commissioned.

The integration team is on-site and takes full responsibility for the whole line’s speed and reliability, dealing with start-up issues as they arise.

And if you don’t have the budget?

Machinery-as-a-Service is the new kid on the block.

Rather than paying for the equipment outright, you only pay for the output of the equipment. This is a finance model that has been used extensively for jet engines and medical equipment.

Its use for the packaging industry is now made possible by the advent of blockchain technology, but to set it up well requires—you guessed it—an expert in line integration and data capture.

See good integration in action

Foodmach combined equipment from around 10 different OEMs to create one of the most technologically advanced packaging facilities in the world at Australian Vintage Ltd’s Line 6 at Merbein, Victoria, using Industry 4.0-enabled line integration.

Australia Vintage Ltd Case Study

Read the case study

This article was first published in PKN Packaging News.

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