Schneider Electric is pleased to have been an exhibitor at Pack Expo Las Vegas 2017, the biggest annual event in the packaging industry. Among the diverse presentations and discussions held over the course of the event, I found a recurring theme to be constant: the packaging world of tomorrow has arrived today. Technologies that were promised years ago, are no longer distant dreams or vaporware – they are here today, and these manufacturing advanced systems and processes are readily attainable. Or perhaps more accurately, they are already essential.
Everything is going digital
Every Pack Expo vendor talked about how factories are going digital – and how packaging plays an integral part. The first thing of note I saw was how systems are now connecting CRM platforms to the supply chain. Software talks to inventory management when an order comes in, determining the most efficient path to fulfilment and giving accurate delivery estimates. This allows factory managers to both understand capacity and run operations for maximum output / profitability and minimum downtime. Machine builders and plant updates integrate intelligence within the machinery for optimal operation, safe and secure access, and quick and easy troubleshooting. Packaging is no longer just about putting things in boxes – it’s about putting technology in systems.
Another topic talked about was the integration of augmented reality, an innovation that creates entirely new ways of interacting with packaging systems. For example, an augmented operator offercan install on a mobile device to enable in-depth evaluation of production and maintenance operations. Using the camera in the device, the app superimposes real-time information from a given machine’s performance and maintenance records. Operators can call up context-sensitive manuals and videos, and access diagnostics and troubleshooting, all while the machine runs uninterrupted.
Robotics are on the rise
There was frequent talk at Pack Expo about the importance of robotics for a clean and secure production environment – especially for primary packaging, where there is zero tolerance of contaminants. Integrated technology and robotics also help factories comply with FDA standards and pass inspections quickly, making it easier to secure supply contracts with retail giants.
A solution with a complete IIoT-enabled machine-centric automation architectureenables machine builders to design safe, better connected, more flexible and more efficient machines through advanced digital technologies and open standards. The solution offers multiple advantages, including a reduction in required cabinet space, extensive diagnostic functions, and improved visualization and predictive maintenance while controlling multiple robots with the same controller.
More advanced features now possible
One particularly hot topic at Pack Expo was retail-ready packaging. Bulk packaging a single product is a thing of the past. Now, machines are designed to offer the flexibility to make smaller packages of multiple products to create single-pack or multi-pack units which are designed and labeled for off-the-shelf sale. Advanced technology has made it much easier for one system to handle both bulk cases and retail-ready packages.
Barcodes were another hot topic. A familiar way to track packages, barcodes are increasingly becoming part of packaging machines as well. Requiring barcode scans on equipment, using a barcode label software, is a useful way to authenticate the personnel operating the equipment and the level of access they need, adding another layer of security.
A third trend was consistency in machinery programming, which allows machines on the shop floor to talk to each other, making integration of machinery for a new or existing plant both simple and consistent. PackML (Packaging Machine Language) is an open standard for the control of packaging machines, designed to establish consistent protocols and promote industry innovation. Vendors and machine builders should take note that PackML compliant machinery is becoming a necessity.
Solutions need to make machines PackML compliant by integrating the templates, but also need to make programming simpler and easier by integrating the machine or function specific know-how, the robotic transformations and the knowledge in software and function blocks. A single software environmentfor the entire machine can save engineering time with the use of intuitive machine programming.
The future is collaborative
In the world of IIoT, manufacturers must increase speed, efficiency and profitability while maintaining a competitive advantage. The Organization for Machine Automation and Control (OMAC) is a group of industry professionals who believe that collective success rests on collaboration and sharing best practices. As an OMAC member and part of the organization’s packaging workgroup, Schneider Electric is committed to helping address issues that confront global manufacturing today.
It’s an exciting time in the packaging industry, and we enjoyed meeting our customers, colleagues, and friends at Pack Expo 2017. We hope to see you there next year.