Embracing automation in food packaging

Improving food packaging processes

Food packaging automation

We all know what automation can do for food packaging. First, efficiency. Then, there’s efficiency. Also, scaling. Oh, and efficiency.

Now, you probably already have some degree of automation, especially for making your products and even putting them into their primary packaging, like the pouch or jar. But what about your end-of-the-line packaging systems?

Like the processes of taking those pouches, putting them into a box, putting tape on the box, putting the box on a pallet and wrapping the pallet in stretch film. In other words, you have a lot of opportunities for turning manual processes into mechanized ones. 

So let’s take a broader look at food packaging automation to make sure you’re making the right choices. Sometimes, the obvious way to automate could actually miss out on a big opportunity for greater efficiency (of course) but also for other benefits like data collection and analysis, process standardization, and quality improvements.

Reduced Labor Costs

To start, let’s take a blunt look at the elephant in the automation room. Yes, automation can help you reduce labor costs. Yes, this can mean cutting jobs. However, that’s not necessarily the reality in the current work environment. It helps make social distancing easier. It can potentially allow people to stay home safely when ill without creating downtime. It actually helps humans.

Furthermore, automation can be an effective way to help bridge the current labor gap. If you’re struggling with the current labor shortage, automation solutions could help solve more than one problem. First, it can help ensure you can keep up with demand. But second, it can actually help you allocate your existing workforce more effectively. In fact, it’s especially understandable in the current environment that you want to use your human resources as effectively as possible. If you have skilled employees with valuable experience and knowledge, you want them doing more strategic work. When you implement automation, you can use their labor for better things, like solving problems or identifying new opportunities.

Improved Sustainability

Automation can also be a step toward improved sustainability. Yes, machines do require power and raw materials, and it’s important to consider that aspect of automation even if it doesn’t directly affect your own carbon footprint. That said, there are ways in which machines can reduce waste by being, well, machines.

The simple fact is that people make mistakes, whereas robots do only what they’re told to do, usually resulting in fewer mistakes. When you add up things like misaligned adhesives, stretch wrap that isn’t stretched, and other errors that require both more labor and more material, you ultimately have a big pile of waste.

Automation can help solve this in two ways. First, when the automated processes are working right, there are simply fewer mistakes that have to be thrown out. 

Second, standardization means that you have greater control over your consumption. If you don’t have to build in a bunch of buffers for human error, you can be much leaner and tighter in your allocations and purchases.

In short, automation can be very green.

Reduced Risk

There’s another thing that humans do that machines don’t: get hurt. When you’re able to free your people from tedious manual tasks that can become a bit mindless, you’ll be able to make sure they don’t have on-the-job injuries that can affect their livelihood.

You’ll also be able to make sure you’re never surprised by mishaps. While you do have to factor in maintenance and repairs for automation solutions, these costs can be very predictable thanks to big data analytics. Unlike packaging mishaps that can happen at any time, you’ll have the tools to anticipate expenses and prepare, rather than repair.

The consistent nature of automation also reduces the risk of damages to your products. Whether it’s a crate of milk jugs that broke because it was imbalanced and toppled over during shipping, or boxes of crackers got crushed because they weren’t stacked properly, these incidents can be mitigated by the consistency of automation.

Improved Accuracy

When inventory is automated, accuracy is improved significantly. This might be the simplest of them all. Machines can just count things well. 

Even better, they can integrate with other solutions to help you know what your inventory is at any given moment. Whereas manual counts and catalogs take time and may have errors, an integrated, automated solution gives you real-time visibility over your entire stock.

So, what can you do now to help introduce automation into your company?

  • Partner with an expert. You probably recognize a few places where automation can help you. Great! An equipment specialist might see even more—and be able to give you the rationale for convincing others to invest in automation. It doesn’t even need to be a whole new line. It can be an add-on, an end-of-line automation, or a leasing program that doesn’t have to be an overwhelming investment.
  • Get a win. There are ways to take small steps towards a fully automated line, especially with simple equipment like case erectors and stretch wrappers. Once you’ve identified an easy use case—perhaps with expert insight—you can prove it and amplify it. Measure the baseline, set up a standard, and be able to show that, yes, it is working. This is another way to start with a low-cost initiative rather than an expensive, intimidating overhaul. It can also help you look good.
  • Chart a path. When you’re looking into automation solutions, think beyond the immediate benefits. Most options will supply you with all kinds of new data collection possibilities. What can you learn from understanding, say, exactly how many steaks your packaging robots can wrap in an hour? Or precisely what volume of metal is necessary to can a crop of beans?

Want to see more ideas of how you could benefit from food packaging automation? Here are some ways that other companies are innovating. To learn how Veritiv’s food packaging experts can help with your automation journey, contact us today.