Blog : How automation can help you meet sustainability goals

Sustainable Dairy Packaging

Dairy processors typically produce a variety of waste types, including packaging, such as cardboard, paper, cartons and plastic. 

The Australian Government’s commitment to all packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 has increased the urgency of addressing this problem.

What's needed now is practical support for dairy manufacturers to help achieve a lean packaging operation.

What the industry is doing

To help drive industry-wide progress towards meeting the 2025 National Packaging Targets, an industry working group has been established, which will also support developing circular economies for dairy product packaging. 

Several dairy companies from across Australia are participating in the Australian Packaging Covenant. The group is examining how dairy companies can achieve 100% recyclability of packaging, incorporate more recycled content and reduce post-consumer packaging going to landfill. Ten dairy companies so far have signed up: Bega, Brancourt Dairies, Brownes, Bulla, Chobani, Fonterra, Lactalis, Bega, Nestle and Saputo.

Dairy producers have already begun meeting the challenge under the watchful eye of consumers. Brownes Dairy of Western Australia first launched waste-reducing renewable milk cartons made entirely from wood fibre and sugarcane—both renewable resources—and ditched fossil-fuel-derived plastic lining in the process.

Throughout the industry, polythene is being replaced with paper board, pouches are becoming plant-based and renewable polymers abound.

And glass is making a comeback.

Renewables are just the start

In order to meet sustainability targets and boost the environmental credentials of new materials, the dairy industry must also ensure that the production process itself minimises its use of resources and maximises its efficiency.

Automated solutions can help to streamline these processes.

Factory automation, often referred to as industrial automation, is the use of control systems to operate processes without human intervention. These systems generally include software, computers and robotics.

The benefits of automation include increases in productivity, accuracy, flexibility and worker safety while providing overall cost savings. 

Most importantly, the right kind of automation reduces waste; all types of waste — raw material, product, packaging material, time, human resources and energy.

“Lean manufacturing” refers to the elimination of waste throughout the manufacturing process. And automation is the single fastest and most effective way to achieve it.

‘Smart’ examples of automation

Waste reduction can be achieved through automation by combining and streamlining processes.

For example:

  • Compact robotics and an efficient packaging line layout can reduce the need for factory floor space and consequent overheads. Further savings can be made through lower robot cycle times and increased production efficiency.

  • Material waste from handling new types of recyclable materials can be minimised by streamlining operations with correctly specified robots for de-palletising, case packaging and palletising functions.

  • An issue common to conventional palletising systems is unwanted pack turning or pallet layer pattern problems, so ensure the system you use offers precision and reliable layer patterns. Make changes to pallet patterns in minutes and without the need for a PLC technician by using intuitive drag-and-drop pallet pattern-forming software.

  • Simplify controls interfaces for operators so they are consistent and uniform, thus reducing errors and fatigue.

  • Coding and packaging quality can be guaranteed using online printing technology, software and vision cameras. A smart software package will integrate any brand of coding and labelling equipment to a central code management control platform. This will both eliminate the chance of incorrect codes being printed in the first place and check the quality of the print itself.

  • Consider the savings that can be made by using generic packaging pre-printed with all common graphics, logos and text, with SKU-specific information printed by an online printer.

 These are just a few ideas. An automation supplier that provides end-to-end packaging technology will have countless more.

Make it flexible

Automation needs to be flexible to help ease and accelerate the change to environmentally conscious and innovative materials.

Your packaging line needs to adapt to endless new products or packages of different shapes and sizes.

Dairy manufacturers might consider investing in modular machines that can change their function readily or robots with end-of-arm tooling for performing multiple applications that assist human workers.

Recipe-driven manufacturing can help ease the pain of packaging where there are increased quantities of SKUs with shorter runs, reducing set-up and changeover times and the risk of packaging errors.

Closing the loop on shrink wrap

Shrink wrap is widely used to stabilise pallets and protect product from scuffing, damage, dust and moisture.

There are limitations on how much of this material can be reduced within the supply chain for safety and quality reasons.

With most stretch wrappers, the solution is to wind up the film pre-stretch value as high as possible, with the aim of reducing film use from the bottom to the top of each pallet. By increasing pre-stretch to use less film per pallet, you’re achieving the aim of less plastic use, but this will likely have a negative impact on your products and load stability. And if you have a non-rigid product, a high containment force from excessive pre-stretch can crush your product at the corners of the pallet load.

One solution is a technology that allows you to vary the amount of pre-stretch and containment force at any vertical position on the pallet load.

For example, at the base of the load, more force is generally required to prevent load slippage and to increase containment on the pallet. Further up the pallet, the containment force can generally be reduced. By reducing containment force at the top, the pallet load is allowed to move slightly, which actually reduces stresses on the entire pallet load in transit.

And what about the wrap itself?

Taking a leaf from the wine industry, Treasury Wine Estate’s (TWE) Bilyara Packaging Centre has been finding ways to increase recycling of this material. TWE separates the shrink wrap from the general waste stream and work with Replas, a leading mixed recycled manufacturer who picks up the shrink wrap and transform this into slip sheets.

Slip sheets stabilise pallet loads in the distribution network and result in less damage. The slip sheets are reusable and circulate in the distribution market until their end of life.

This diverted approximately 275 tonnes of shrink-wrap plastic from landfill during the 2020 financial year.

No sense, no control

The aim of a fully automated packaging operation is for individual products to move through the line seamlessly, minimising delays and human error.

In order to achieve this, sensors are used.

Sensor-based monitoring can help managers identify bottlenecks on the line and reduce downtime. Smart sensors can also be used to identify quality control issues as they occur, quickly determining their source. They can track production volumes, temperature, time and pressure, energy and water use and are a useful tool for predictive and preventative maintenance.

All in all, sensors keep production running smoothly and effectively.

Smart sensors can be retrofitted to existing equipment. While it might be a more cost-effective option to digitalising production equipment, it is a bit of a band-aid approach.

However, even getting a few sensors installed will improve efficiency even if a machinery upgrade isn’t on the cards.

An automation specialist can help manufacturers source suitable sensors for your existing equipment.

Maximising control

A packaging line management system can give you the power to control your entire packaging operation from one dashboard.

It’s the ultimate tool for reducing waste.

An example is Foodmach's LMES, or Line Management Execution System, which tells you how many bottles were filled and why. It might be, for instance, that the case packer was waiting for blanks. Rather than relying on a scribble on a piece of paper from a line operator, the LMES will tell you. With most lines measured at the filler, if count numbers are low, an LMES will let you know if the labeller ran out of labels. Because all data is revealed on a dashboard that can be live-viewed from anywhere, it removes the temptation to blame the machine rather than its management.

A Line Management Execution System links all the equipment and creates paths for integration with higher-level management systems.

By taking advantage of artificial intelligence and big data, manufacturers can forecast their needs more accurately and prevent over-ordering materials.

Opportunities for dairy processors

As legislative pressure and consumer desire for environmentally friendly packaging options continue to grow, dairy manufacturers will need to be prepared.

Automation makes it possible to reduce waste, increase efficiency and adapt quickly to a changing market that requires shorter runs of an increasing number of products.

Australia’s food and beverage manufacturers will increasingly rely on flexible technology to meet business and sustainability goals.

Need help introducing automation to your dairy line?

Our sales engineering team will help you work out how to integrate that new machine with your existing equipment.

They’ll also help identify any potential issues that could affect your future output. Our people make it their business to understand the world’s most innovative packaging technology, so they can also help you choose the best fit for your needs.

Our technicians are so well trained to handle blue-chip brands such as Robopac, Markem-Imaje and ThermoFisher that they can (and do!) step in to replace OEM technicians. Even better, we provide you with ongoing service and support, so you’re never left holding the baby.

So if you’re looking for a solution that is guaranteed to work, we’re here to help.

Just ask us

This article first appeared in The Australian Dairy Foods Magazine.