Prominent CPG industry stakeholders reflect on new post-pandemic realities driving demand for further capital investment in new-generation industrial automation technologies
Saying that CPG (consumer packaging goods) companies need more automation to improve their manufacturing competitiveness is much like declaring that water is wet, but despite the virtually unanimous agreement on the importance of automation and digitization as vital strategic assets and competencies, there remains much disparity in the success of their implementation to date across many manufacturing sectors.
Despite the billions of dollars spent by goods-producing industries on the latest robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), manufacturing software and other new-generation automation technologies, the gap between optimizing their full potential and the actual advances in process efficiencies and productivity on the shop floor still leaves a lot of room for improvement, according to numerous studies on the subject.
For packaging and related processing industries, this gap was comprehensively outlined in the recent landmark report, titled The Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing, released by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, during the latest PACK EXPO International global packaging industry showcase in Chicago in November of 2022.
Based on extensive interviews with leading executives at 105 prominent CPG manufacturing companies across North America, the study confirms that while senior management is largely committed to further investment in automation technologies to support future business growth, many corporate leaders remain unimpressed by the concrete results those investment have yielded so far.
To explore this state of affairs in more detail, the Canadian Packaging magazine has recently invited some of North America’s leading automation providers and their manufacturing customers to a roundtable discussion at the publication’s offices in Toronto earlier this year, focusing on how manufacturers can better leverage the existing and forthcoming packaging automation technologies and strategies to boost their competitiveness.
Sponsored by leading packaging automation providers Syntegon, FANUC, Festo and igus, the timely discussion highlighted the emergence of a game-changing new narrative in the manufacturing business that rarely featured so prominently in most conversations about automation before the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.
Whereas the need to replace manual labour on production and packaging line used to be cited as a key raison d’être and end goal in and of itself in pre-pandemic days, the severe labour shortages across many manufacturing industries prompted by the pandemic have made the imperative to automate an increasingly urgent priority for manufacturers large and small—in virtually every industrial sector and segment.
In addition, the hybrid roundtable discussion—featuring in-person and online Zoom-connected participants—reflected on the growing importance of industrial automation as a means of reducing the manufacturing industry’s environmental footprint in light of increasingly vocal calls for action to address global climate change.
Using the aforementioned PMMI report as the backdrop to launch the discussion, PMMI’s vice-president of industry services Tom Egan cautioned that some of the report’s findings were based on responses received before the end of the pandemic, thereby leaving a certain margin of ambiguity for some specific questions and responses.
For the most part, though, the report’s finding were largely in tune with what PMMI was expecting and researching over the last couple of years, according to Egan.
“It is not surprising that the highest areas of automation focus predominate in the packaging and processing areas at consumer packaged goods firms,” said Egan, noting that 55 per cent of the respondents cited these two areas as the most viable candidates for continued automation.”
According to Egan, processing and packaging functions appear to be getting the bulk of automation investment allocation because that’s where many companies feel most comfortable to bring in new automation.
But such familiarity and comfort levels drop significantly (13 per cent) when it comes to automating their distribution, warehousing and fulfillment operations, noted Egan, with less than a third of respondents (31 per cent) agreeing that both upstream areas present good opportunities for further automation.
As the PMMI survey reveals, many of the secondary and tertiary production processes related to warehousing and inventory management are still relying on manual methods of operation to a surprisingly high extent.
For example, 68 per cent of respondents identified the receiving and storage of packaging materials as being “highly manual” at their plants, along with raw materials receiving and storage (61.3 per cent), and pallet transfer and storage retrieval (58.8 per cent).
“These seem to be the areas that are ripe for automation,” Egan said, “including robotic automation.”
Conversely, just over a third of respondents thought of their shipping/distribution, secondary packaging and warehouse management as being highly manual—representing considerable progress in these areas in recent years.
The big surprise here, according to Egan, was to see secondary packaging, such as cartoning, still being a largely manual task for nearly two-thirds of the surveyed companies.
“That would indicate that many companies who have already automated their tertiary packaging (palletizing and stretch wrapping) are working backwards up the line to secondary packaging to bring in higher levels of automation,” Egan noted.
Indeed, seeing teams of workers manually hand-packing corrugated shipping containers with finished packaged goods is still a common sight at many production plants for a variety of reasons, despite the widespread availability of many leading-edge robotic systems available to automate these process steps.
While the use of industrial robotics has soared across many industries in recent years—particularly in upstream primary packaging and processing areas—the introduction of so-called cobots (collaborative robots) into the manufacturing process has so far failed short of the widespread adoption that robotics manufacturers have been hoping for.
As Egan pointed out, 51 per cent of the survey respondents said that cobots only offer a small improvement to their existing processes, with another seven per cent saying they offered no improvement at all.
On the bright side, Egan noted that the continued chronic labour shortages and stricter focus on workplace safety should reverse this imbalance in coming years, as manufacturing companies realize the benefits of having the smaller, intrinsically-safe cobots working alongside humans without the additional expenses of wiring and safeguarding the larger industrial robotic systems that take up far more valuable floor space.
Moreover, most cobots produced today are designed as exceptionally user-friendly and highly mobile mechanical servants outfitted with powerful machine learning capabilities to make them valuable productive assets working in tandem with their human counterparts.
“When you look at the forecast for 2026, you will see chemical, pharmaceutical and food-and-beverage sectors showing robust growth for the use of robots in their production operations,” Egan said.
“It’s expected that cobots will continue to grow in those areas to show some pretty significant growth as we go into 2026.”
Doug Alexander, vice-president of sustainability at Belmont Meat Products Ltd., said he sees continued growth in the number of cobots being added to all kinds of food-processing operations due to their compact design, mobility and the ability to work safely with humans side-by-side.
“One of the constraints we’ve had historically with traditional robots is where to put them,” Alexander said. “So if you have a giant palletizing robot, you needed a very large footprint.
“Food plants have typically advanced over the decades to the point where they don’t have the space large gargantuan robot systems,” he said.
“Cobots make it much more safe for (human) labour and machinery to work together in a smaller footprint,” he said, “and that really opens the door for more automation.”
As Alexander pointed out, “One of the challenges we have in food processing is that it is incredibly labour-intensive, so the significant improvements in the dexterity, tooling and machine learning tooling now provides the ability to have cobots interact between the steps that are traditionally manual.
“That natural interplay between the two allows for more introduction of automation even earlier, perhaps, than with traditional automation robots.”
For Wes Garrett, executive director of global accounts for food and beverage business at leading robotic systems manufacturer FANUC America Corporation, the double-digit global growth in the sales of collaborative robots in recent years is compelling proof of the cobots’ viability at modern manufacturing enterprises.
Since launching the company’s CRX series collaborative robotic arms in 2019, FANUC has expanded the CRX cobot range to five models with different reach capabilities and payload capacities from five to 25 kilograms.
While cobots are not intended to replace the towering high-speed, high-capacity industrial robots employed on high-throughput product ion lines of large-scale mass manufacturing operations, “When we’re talking about small to medium-sized manufacturers, cobots can be a really good fit,” Garrett proclaimed.
“We have found that many smaller manufacturers tend to have a lot of product mix, rather than a lot of high volumes, so the flexibility of cobots really comes into play for them,” Garrett noted.
“So even if they can’t have a cobot at every single line running around the clock, they can literally move their cobots to a different line as they need to,” he explained, noting that their “plug-and-play” operability allows for continuous redeployment of the collaborative robotic arms to wherever they are needed without much process interruption or line downtime.
In addition to their flexibility, cobots also offer a fairly economical alternative to permanently-mounted industrial robots because they do not require all the safety wiring and guarding systems to prevent close physical proximity to human workers.
“I think that our cobots are already fairly cost-competitive in the marketplace,” Garrett stated.
“I don’t know if the pricing is going to keep going down much further,” he acknowledged, “but it really comes down to the sheer amount of additional safety requirements for traditional robots,” such as safety light curtains, CG laser safety scanners and the actual protective fencing/wiring.
According to Nicholas Taraborelli, vice-president of prominent manufacturer of automated packaging machinery Paxiom Group, close collaboration between automation suppliers and end users has a direct impact on the success and ROI (return-on-investment) of any capital investment project involving robotics, traditional or collaborative.
“While the costs of robots may not be decreasing, the costs of labour are increasing quickly,” he said.
“So for us, as a machine manufacturer, offering different robots across our whole product line is really important.”
Said Taraborelli: “All applications are unique, but all businesses are the same: they are all tasked with providing shareholders with value.
“And that value will come from greater efficiencies, better cost control, and delivering more product to market.
“So I think it’s important to work with every client by working in reverse and asking, ‘What are your needs? What are your pain points? Where can you save costs? Where can you find that value-added?’
“And then you build your machine solutions around those new pieces of automation,” he said.
“It’s not just about the straight ROI in terms of how many people I can reposition within my facility to justify the investment,” Taraborelli stated. “These days I find that employee reliability, just in terms of basic attendance, is becoming the biggest issue in preventing manufacturers from scaling up their business.
“You also need to be flexible enough to realize that sometimes less (automation) is actually more,” Taraborelli pointed out. “If the company’s marketing is driving its innovation, you may not want to automate you process to the gills because that is going to have a direct effect on the product (variety) that you’re delivering to the marketplace.
“You can’t just ram automation down people’s throats.”
Emilie Alen, vice-president of logistics at Canada’s leading baked goods manufacturer Biscuits Leclerc Ltée, says that continuous investment in automation technologies has played a major role in the company’s growth and expansion over the last couple of decades.
“We have an automated warehouse at four of our (eight) plants,” Alen revealed, “and we are now planning to automate the warehouse at our Brockville, Ont., plant automated as well.
“We have a lot of industrial robots doing palletizing at these plants,” she said, “as well as some cobots.
“We (Leclerc) have been investing in automation for the last 20 because it is a priority for us,” she said. “It has paid off because we can run our lines with less people, which at the end of the day makes the difference between running or not running your lines.
“And it’s evolving every year, becoming more flexible, faster and more reliable,” Alen stated, stressing the importance of working collaboratively with the company’s automation partners.
“We have key partners with whom we work with on a regular basis, who know how our needs and who know how we want to work,” she said. “That is very important to us.”
As Alen related, many of the packaging lines at Leclerc facilities are today running at high speeds with minimal personnel thanks to the highly automated flow wrapping and other packaging machinery supplied by leading global packaging equipment manufacturer Syntegon, which supplied some of the key pieces of equipment to the company’s most recently opened manufacturing facility in Cornwall, Ont., started up in 2019.
According to Alen, choosing Syntegon machinery for the Cornwall plant was based in large part on the considerable success that Leclerc achieved with Syntegon equipment at its other plants earlier.
Syntegon’s robotics product owner Michael Butler said the current labour shortages are forcing CPG manufacturers worldwide to look beyond quick ROI as motivation for automating their operations, but rather as a means to keep their lines running at all.
“Because of the workforce constraints, we’re seeing requests for automation in places like Central America, where typically automation could never justify an ROI,” Butler said.
“It has now become a decision between automating or shutting down,” said Bulter, citing “greater flexibility, greater redundancy and future planning” as new important considerations for justifying additional automation expenditures.
“Many of the companies we’re working with want to look at not just the bare bones minimum of what they can get by with through automation,” he explained.
“They are also looking at having future expansion, future capacity, and making sure that the system is done right the first time in a way that’s going to keep them their production up-and-running consistently and robustly,” he stated.
According to FANUC’s Garrett, the customers’ growing demands for more innovative automation solutions is also driven by the fact that many of the “low-hanging fruit” applications at their factories have already been automated to their full potential and capacity.
“With palletizing and case-packing already automated, it’s now about getting more tasks done within the same footprint, where you not only case-pack, but also load the blanks, insert the slipsheets and palletize, all with one robot,” he said.
“People are trying to automate everything they can.”
Butler agreed: “We are seeing more and more people are looking to automate (production of) more challenging products that were typically unapproachable with robotics and automation.
“Whereas packaging things like cookies has been well automated at this point,” he said, “packing donuts, or building sandwiches with robots, or mixing variety packs on the side with a high mix of products going into the same box… these are the more challenging applications for which companies are asking for automated solutions to be provided.
“And that’s where the real growth and opportunity are today, as more sophisticated end-effectors come into the market, with more sophisticated picking strategies, and more powerful software for the robots.
“The growth in the cobots market is not going to come from replacing the high-speed overhead delta robots,” he said, “but rather from doing the intermittent low-speed tasks, whereby a cobot mounted onto and AGV (automated guided vehicle) would be used for machine tending, supplying raw materials from the warehouse, or to load rolls of film onto the wrapper.
“These are all things that still require a good number of operators to keep a line running,” he said, “but if that secondary level of the process can get automated, it would really get us closer toward that ‘lights out’ facility where the process just runs all day, with maybe just a couple of humans to oversee it.”
With rapid advances in machine vision and gripper technology, today’s robots and cobots are being increasingly used to handle more complex tasks that would have unthinkable even ten years ago, the roundtable participants agreed.
“It’s great to hear about the complexity moving forward,” said Belmont’s Alexander. “I think the next phase in this evolution will be the integration of more advanced scientific instrumentation like spectroscopy.
“So that when a chicken breast is going along the conveyor, it (robot) might be able to make a qualitative decision about not just the shape, size and color, but understand whether it has too high of a fat content and make the right judgment call,” Alexander explained.
“So adding in more instrumentation to enhance that decision-making and taking on more complexity—making multiple decisions and performing multiple steps within one work cell, rather than in a larger footprint—is fantastic.”
According to the panel’s two Festo representatives, the rapid recent advances in AI technology will make further integration of advanced instrumentation and other cutting-edge increasingly possible and seamless, especially as CPGs become more comfortable with digitization, machine learning, data analysis and other hallmarks of the fast-evolving Industry 4.0 smart manufacturing systems.
As Festo’s global product manager Frank Latino pointed out, AI-embedded automation devices and components are becoming an indispensable prerequisite for smarter and more reliable machine performance across the factory floor through the use of predictive analytics and digital machine-to-machine networking.
“For customers using robotic vacuum technology to pick up different items, for example, we can provide vacuum sensors to not only monitor the performance of the suction cups or soft grippers, but be able to predict their performance to inform people of any pending problem they may want to address earlier, rather than later, to avoid downtime,” Latino said.
“On the maintenance side of things, AI tools are going to become very dominant in the future for providing analytics for predictive maintenance and predictive quality,” Latino stated.
For Festo’s business development specialist Nicolas Fleuriot, there is no such thing as too much data when it comes to optimizing the performance of automated manufacturing and packaging equipment.
“When it comes to data,” Fleuriot stated, “you really want to collect as much data as you can.
“You may not need it right now, but in six or ten years you may want to go back and look at this data,” Fleuriot said, “and be able to make a decision based on the history of what’s been done with this data.
“We (Festo) come into the picture by providing the OEMs’ (original equipment manufacturers) PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and instruments with the components to give access to data, which is also passed on to the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), the MES (manufacturing Execution System), the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and, finally, the Cloud,” Fleruriot explained.
“Automating the business process means populating all these areas are populating information into a (data) pool that all other users and stakeholders in the enterprise are able to subscribe to and use as they see fit.”
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