Case packing is a core process in all areas of manufacturing, including food and beverage. Traditionally this has been done manually, but the advancement of technology has made many automation solutions available. What will suit one’s business best?
Case packing can come in many forms. Until now, case packing in Asia has predominantly been about packing the final product into corrugated carton material (commonly known as the ‘case’) by hand using manual labour, and this is typically subcontracted. For various reasons, manufacturers generally do not give the right attention to automation of the end of the line.
While the capital investment may seem challenging, compared to other capital spends in the purview, there are a plethora of reasons why manufacturers should be looking to move to case packing automation. Moreover, if there is a manufacturer with existing case packing equipment in their production line, the array of new technologies and automation would allow one to bring a better dimension to the set up.
Case packing can be performed in several concepts such as top-loading, side loading, bottom loading, and wrap-around case packing. Each concept of packing depends on the application pertaining to the product, speed, optimising the units per case, and protection of the product.
There is no ‘onesize fits all’ rule with case packing as each concept of case packing has their own benefits depending on these applications.
Top load case packing is the most common form of case packing. Top load case packing is the placement of the product into a pre-erected American case, from the top. This can be done easily in manual operation, and shifting to an automated process is generally simple. Typical products that are case packed via top-load are glass bottles, cartons, flexible pouches, flowpacks, bags and sachets. Shifting from a manual to automated process for rigid or stable products (e.g. bottles or cartons) is quite easy.
However, handling flexible products requires assessment. Flexible products can be ‘stuffed’ easily into cases manually, and partitions can also easily be placed if required, optimising every inch of space. With automation however, one loses the flexibility associated with manual packing.
A detailed review of the case dimension, number of products per case, how to place them (vertically, flat, on edge, etc.) in view of the transport load and preserving the integrity of the product is required. Together with the on-line speed, the final solution can be straight-forward, or with a high level of complexity.
Top load case packers are typically composed of some robotic automation using industrial robot, delta robot, X-Y gantry system, or mechanical axial movement. The right choice of movement depends entirely on the merit of the application, product, speed and packing format.
Delta robots are a relatively new entrant in the realm of case packing with benefits that were not envisioned earlier. Delta robots’ biggest benefits come in the form of flexibility and speed. They are used typically with low payloads, typically upto 10 kg, and at high speeds, upwards of a rapid 100 cycles per minute.
This makes delta robots the perfect candidate for case packing applications for pouches, trays, flowpacks, bags and sachets where output speeds are high, the product is not stable, and flexible case packing options are required. In a sense, these robots are the closest industrial form to imitate the human element in case packing as they have the ability to handle products coming in a variety of orientations, and have the required vision and artificial hand-eye coordination to pick the product and place it in the case the required collation.
Side load case packing is typically more specific to handling cartons or structured products. The beauty of side load case packing is that it is typically a monoblock solution. This means that the machine would erect, pack and seal your case in a compact footprint. They are used for low to high speed lines, pre-forming the collation, before the case is erected.
The collation is brought to an intermediate station and pushed into the erected case. The case then moves down-stream on the machine for the flap closure and sealing process, which can be done either by tape or hot-melt adhesives. Side load case packers are a great solution for small footprints, but are only able to handle a small array of products.
Wrap around case packing is the alternate form of case packing using pre-cut flat sheets of corrugated blanks, instead of the typical American case one finds in the market.
The biggest advantage of wrap around case packing is the case-saving potential as the major and minor flaps are sealed on the side, instead of the top compared to American cases.
Wrap around case packing is typically done for canned foods or beverages where the case saving in corrugated material allows a faster return on the investment, and reduces the carbon footprint. The blanks are formed around the product, which is pre-collated, and then sealed with hot-melt adhesives.
Manufacturers who have rich experience in casepacking automation are looking for the next level in technologies and optimisation. This comes in the form of consolidating multiple primary lines into a few case packing nodes. Advanced case packing automation with the ability to handle high speeds and automated changeover come at a premium, but offer a higher level of returns.
As end of line case packing can typically be a phased investment, with manufacturers focusing on investments in output and multiple lines, space typically becomes the biggest constraint for installing case packing lines. This has increased the need for technological innovations in case packing to over-come the premium in space while providing a suitable solution for the manufacturer.
Moreover, manufacturers are now starting to look at ‘output per square metre’ of the factory floor to optimise investments and returns. Case packing is an integral part of this discussion as the right solution typically has to be developed together with a case packing partner.
Layouts, speed, output, production volumes are important driving factors in how case packers can help to optimise output per square metre in this case.
Return on investment with case packing automation is derived by savings from increased output and efficiency. If case packing is your bottleneck, automation allows you to increase your output compared to previous inefficiencies on your line, which then allows you to meet your production demands earlier than normal.
In many countries in Asia, obtaining reliable, skilled and efficient labour is a pertinent challenge and automation can help to alleviate this. Savings in labour reduction, reject reduction and wastage due to manual packing also allows you to achieve your returns earlier.
Overall, case packing in Asia has been growing over time as cost of manpower increases, together with a greater focus on higher speed lines, and line efficiency improvements. There are many opportunities to be explored with end of line automation using different technologies like mechanical systems, electronic automation and robotic technologies.
Each concept and packing solutions comes with their own advantages and it is up to the manufacturer to assess what works for them. While the initial savings may not outweigh the cost, there are a lot of advantages that can help bring your manufacturing to the next level of production.