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Automation adapts to sustainable packaging

Author : Patricia Torres, OMRON Europe

27 September 2022

Have you ever ordered a small item online, and then felt incensed when it arrived in an oversized box packed out with bubble wrap, air-filled cushions or paper inserts?

Consumers (and I am as guilty of this as the next person) are very quick to criticise – particularly when it comes to over-packaging. They don’t appreciate that the e-commerce retailer might not be able to sustain the higher cost of stocking ten different box sizes, or have an automation system that can cope with varying sizes. 

Consumers don’t care about the barriers that businesses have to overcome to make their packaging more sustainable. Smaller boxes. Thinner walls. Lighter weights. Lower virgin plastic content. Surely that’s simple enough to do? 

Only it never is that simple. Whether it is switching from rigid to flexible packaging, lightweighting, thin-walling, incorporating recycled content, moving from multilayer to monolayer material or migrating from plastic to paper, rethinking packaging to make it more sustainable is a highly complex process. 

Black box technologies have the answers
One of the biggest challenges that FMCG manufacturers face during packaging redesign projects is how to adapt their production and packaging lines to accommodate new materials, formats and designs. Here, the key to making a painless transition to sustainable packaging lies in technology. The ‘black box’ technologies that you can’t even see. Algorithms. Motion control. Programming. Sensors. Artificial Intelligence. It’s about harnessing these to drive flexible and future-proof automation solutions that are intelligent and dynamic enough to cope with whatever they encounter. 

Take, for example, the flexible films used in form, fill and seal, flow wrapping and pouch making. They are a huge focus area for innovation, as not only is there a steady stream of brands looking to switch from rigid to flexible formats, but there is also a large existing base of film users who are wanting to move to more eco-friendly films. Their strategies range from downgauging to thinner films to switching to recyclable monolayer films, biodegradable films, paper films or films with recycled content. 

When new materials meet old machines…
Most packaging machines in operation today weren’t designed to accommodate any of these ‘new’ films. They were designed to run highly consistent virgin plastic films of a certain thickness. The ‘pain points’ that need to be addressed when adapting equipment to run emerging materials are film tension control and sealing; thin films burn and tangle more easily; paper films tear; and films with a high recycled content are inherently variable from one batch to the next. 

Even slight changes in film thickness lead to uneven winding and unwinding and increase the tension on the film. Uneven tension, in turn, causes defects during pouch forming and sealing, such as curling, ripping, folding or misalignment. 

Not only do these issues make these films unworkable, but they also have a waste generation implication, which defeats the object of moving to a ‘greener’ film. 

OMRON has addressed this through the development of its Film Tension Control System, which provides synchronised control of tension, feed and cut. This system is one of a series of ‘Function Blocks’ for optimising film processing in form, fill and seal machines. Essentially, our engineers have developed an algorithm and programmed it into our motion control platform, making it easy for OEMs and system integrators to build this functionality into a machine. 

Smart temperature control
In sealing, temperature control is the challenge. Thinner films are very susceptible to burning and the variability of recycled films means that running the sealing system at a constant temperature will result in defects. One of the solutions here is using AI to enable dynamic temperature control. A sensor on the sealing bar links to an adaptive algorithm within the control system that will automatically adjust the sealing temperature when it encounters variability in the material. 

AI-driven dynamic temperature control has potential value not just in flexible film lines but in any packaging application involving heat and variable materials. We see a huge opportunity in blow-moulding. Many brand owners are opting to outsource blow-moulding because of the complexity of producing lighter-weight bottles incorporating recycled content - a slight variation in the resin composition can result in huge volumes of rejects. Closed-loop temperature control can solve this problem. 

It is not just in primary packaging operations that manufacturers are migrating to more sustainable packaging strategies. Secondary operations such as cartoning and palletising are undergoing transformation. 

Flexible pallets confound robotic controllers
As smaller orders of multiple SKUs become the norm in the retail supply chain one of the most obvious ways for FMCG manufacturers to make sustainability gains is to optimise the pallets they ship. However, from a palletising perspective, this could be a headache, and manufacturers will usually opt to send two pallets rather than trying to rationalise two different products onto one pallet. This is because the algorithms of most robotic palletisers in use today were written for programming pallet patterns with identical boxes, and these are stand-alone programs embedded in the robotic arm controller itself limiting the possibilities to work with multiple palletising layouts.

Developing a solution that enables arranging multiple layers in a pallet and that could control multiple palletising stations is a major challenge. However, our engineers are working on it and have improved the palletising process, embedding an easy-to-use “function block” into our automation system that allows setting up different layers and controlling multiple stations from one single controller. Thanks to this palletising solution, system integrators can easily build flexible palletising systems without extensive reprogramming saving engineering, implementation and ultimately integration costs.

Coming full circle
Circularity is an important theme in sustainable packaging, so it is apt that this article should come back to where it started. Through clever control and automation, oversized cartons and wasteful fillers could soon be a thing of the past. Our technology has helped our partner machine builders to develop a cartoning platform based on our cutting-edge motion control platform that enables cardboard boxes to be ‘made-to-measure’ so your products could be delivered in the right size of box.

Moving to lower-impact packaging is rarely simple but, thanks to advanced automation and control technologies that support flexibility, it is achievable.

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