Advancements in automation: cobots join the team

Graphic illustration of a manufacturing employee standing next to a human-shaped robot

Human and machine are coming together to make the supply chain more efficient and safer than ever before. Packaging automation has been a growing trend for years. Now, it’s shifting from a luxury to a necessity to stay competitive. 

“Automation enables our customers, in many cases, to compete in the retail marketplace,” says Kevin Perry, Regional Sales Director with Veritiv. “Value competitiveness has become very important with omnichannel selling. Consumers have so many ways to purchase a product these days and comparison shop online or in-store.”

And the automation trend is only on the rise. According to a report by Mordor Intelligence, “The packaging automation market was valued at USD $57.8 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach USD $109.49 billion by 2025.”1

More SKUs = more opportunity for automation

Manufacturers have been facing productivity challenges for years due to employees retiring, skills gaps, labor shortages and the rise in SKUs, especially in the consumer packaged goods sector. Automation provides a solution. 

The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies explains, “On the production side, pressures to increase overall output have necessitated the expansion of automated technologies to handle shorter runs, new packaging shapes and sizes and an increasing variety of pack count [...] The continued proliferation of SKUs requires companies to have a greater level of control over production cycles, cutting out downtime by utilizing automated components, robotics and integrated sensors."2

Perry and his colleagues at Veritiv have seen these pressures play out for their customers. Automation enables them to meet market needs while improving safety and productivity. 

Boosting safety and efficiency in the packaging process

Automated equipment can tackle a myriad of packaging tasks in a faster, safer way. From applying stretch wrap and shrink film, to taping and palletizing, automation optimizes material demand forecasting and usage to increase consistency, speed and savings, while minimizing waste. These efficiencies can create a more predictable, safer shipping experience as well—both important considerations as e-commerce sales grow.

The number of workplace injuries also decreases when machines handle repetitive and risky tasks instead of people. The coronavirus pandemic has elevated safety concerns even further, as employers look to protect their teams from illness. Automating the packaging process can help workers comply with social distancing guidelines and reduce the number of times a product is handled. 

Cobots and dark warehouses: two automation innovations

Perry says manufacturers don’t have to fully automate to see the benefits. “Another development has been advances in robotics technology, which have made it possible to give some of those tasks to a robot and to have robots work collaboratively with people, which is called a ‘cobot,’” Perry explains. “Utilizing a cobot can make a job safer by giving the robot the repetitive tasks and allowing the employees to focus on more value-added tasks.”

Packaging assembly is a prime example. Using cobots reduces employee density on the factory floor, the opportunity for injury due to repetition and the number of physical touches on a product or package, which could also reduce the spread of illness.

Veritiv Regional Sales Director Lon Boruff says many companies are taking automation even further by developing “dark warehouses.” “Ultimately, dark warehouses, which run 24 hours a day, fully automated, can get packages out the door more efficiently and safely,” he describes. “We’re starting to see this becoming more realistic than it’s ever been in the past 10 years.”

Automation makes dollars and sense

For many firms, the investment in automation is well worth it. Cost savings add up for a variety of reasons: greater consistency, longer production hours, less damage and errors, improved safety and more. 

According to Packaging Digest, “The designers of some modern quality control systems are going so far as to say that their systems don’t make mistakes and can catch nearly 100% of errors. Automated quality assurance systems also work tirelessly, meaning their ability to catch errors won’t wax or wane over the course of a shift.”3

Moving forward, experts anticipate the appetite for greater efficiency, as well as consumer expectations, will only increase, making the case for packaging automation even more compelling. The future belongs to those who automate, or at the very least, those who are open to collaborating with their new cobot teammates. 

1 Mordor Intelligence. (2019). Packaging Automation Market: 2020-2027: Industry Report: Covid Insights. 
The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI). (2019). Omnichannel Retail: Operating Harmoniously in an Integrated, Digitally Enabled Supply Chain.  
3 Nichols, M. (2020, March 9). 5 Benefits of Automated Packaging Lines.