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What's next for packaging machinery automation?

Contributing Editor Keith Campbell scoured the miles of aisles at interpack 2014 to deliver this insightful view of what might be next in the world of packaging machinery controls and automation.
FILED IN:  Controls  > Machine control
SYNCHRONIZATION. Modern industrial Ethernet systems now make it possible to implement high-precision, high-performance synchronization in time frames of 100 nanoseconds, enabling packaging machinery OEMs to achieve reaction times in their machines as fast as 60 microseconds.INDUSTRY 4.0? Work taking place in Europe on Industry 4.0, or the Internet of Things, imagines a future far more interconnected than the world we live in today, and this could have profound implications for packaging lines and the minds that develop them.ROBOTIC SOFTWARE. Patented anti-collision software allows the placement of 12 delta-style robots having overlapping work envelopes in a space of just 10 sq m.IMPROVED KINEMATICS. Users of these new-generation delta robots benefit from improved kinematics thanks to advanced software.

It wasn’t too many years ago that a debate was still raging among packaging machinery builders and buyers about the value of servo motion control for packaging. A walk through the 20 halls of this year’s interpack made one thing abundantly clear: that debate is over.

The widespread acceptance of servos has been driven, and rightly so, by the competitive advantage gained by machine builders and the improved performance enjoyed by end users, with both hopefully taking more dollars to their bottom lines. With this enabling technology now so widespread, one can only wonder what’s next? Where will the next significant increase in competitive advantage and performance come from for packaging? Who better to ask than the world’s leading automation providers and machine builders exhibiting at interpack?

But first, some historical context and definitions may be useful. The application of advanced motion technology for packaging machinery took a different trajectory than that taken for machine tools. Although machine tools make some very fast movements, they generally do so on single parts that move through the machines in timeframes of minutes. Packaging machines also make fast moves, but parts move through the machines in timeframes of milliseconds to seconds. The necessary computer processing power was not available to do for packaging machinery what motion control technology did for machine tools in the same timeframe. This was not because packagers were less sophisticated manufacturers, but because their problem was more complex, at least from the perspective of speed of operation.

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Electronic motion control was being experimented with on packaging machines in the 1980s. As far as I know, the first public display of a machine that began to look like the digital servo driven machines of today was in the Carle booth at Interpack 1990. This was a modular, stepper-driven flow wrapper synchronized by a computer module. Other stepper and analog servo machines were on display in 1990 and evolved over time, but this machine seems to have disappeared. By the time Interpack 1993 came around, a number of servo machines began to show up. Notable for me was one from Kloeckner that utilized hardware and software from Atlanta-based Automation Intelligence. (Another example of technology developed in the U.S. being commercialized by others.) Operator interface, sequence control, and motion control were being tightly integrated on machines by several high-profile machinery companies.

By Interpack 1996, major European packaging machine suppliers had recognized the potential for this technology and began to display small “servo spoken here” signs in their booths. Legal and police actions for design infringements played out on the Dusseldorf show floor. For many of these machines, the underlying software technology was coming from the U.S., but for the most part, U.S. builders were sticking with electro-mechanical designs, a strategy that too many stuck with for too long a time. By 1996, the CPG company where I was employed had recognized the technical, cultural, and educational impediments to moving to a mechatronic paradigm in America, and we began to see the commercial playing field becoming more skewed in favor of Europe. To address this, CPGs moved to form what is now the OMAC Packaging Workgroup (see sidebar on the founding of OMAC).


One of the early deliverables of the group was the defining of three distinct generations of packaging machinery technology along with definitions of levels of automation and integration. Eventually the group published, through Packaging World, a quantitative look at the business benefits of the latest generation, referred to simply as Gen 3.

Gen 1 was defined as the standard-of-the-time electromechanical machine that might include variable speed drives, sensors, a PLC and maybe an operator interface panel. This design had been evolving for decades and had seen the use of mechanical relays, electronic logic blocks, and finally programmable devices. These variations were driven primarily by cost and support issues, quality improvements, and sometimes speed. Gen 2 was defined as machines adopting servos by applying them to these electro-mechanical designs, essentially continuing the evolution. Gen 2 machines were largely unsuccessful. They were costly and provided only marginal operational benefits. As a stepping stone, they were useful for helping builders and packagers to better understand the technology and its potential, but a more revolutionary change was required. This was the Gen 3 machine, designed from the ground up as a mechatronic, servo-based machine.

Over the dozen years since the OMAC group defined these categories, the Gen 3 machine has continued to evolve. In 2002, eight coordinated axes was considered a lot. Today machines with 108 axes are available and systems can run into multiple hundreds of axes. Not all machines need or have arrived at the same level of refinement; standards like PackML are too infrequently employed; the higher levels of integration defined in those early OMAC documents are still not universally used; and necessary education and training is not yet universally available. But virtually every machine builder is somewhere on the evolutionary path of Gen 3 machines. This brings me back to Interpack 2014 and the question, “What’s next?”

Mathematical modeling
Patrich Marchion is a mechatronics engineer with Swiss machine builder Dividella, which makes Gen 3 machines with high axis counts for the pharmaceutical industry. Marchion believes that the next breakthrough will occur when engineers rely more heavily on mathematical modeling for designing machines. This will be a fundamental transformation of machine design from an art to a science. I have heard a similar idea expressed before from some of the more sophisticated consumer packaged goods companies, those who still rely on their own internal machine design departments for development of machines for their proprietary processes. Performance breakthroughs do come from end users who are not constrained by time and cost concerns when it comes to optimizing the most key machines in their operations. Much more can be done in terms of improving performance if machine designs are subjected to rigorous dynamic modeling to identify resonances and other factors that limit performance. Many designers have made the transition to 3D CADD models, but these are largely static models that help with optimization of part geometry. Taking these static models to dynamic models that embed the complex mathematical relationships of the materials, components, and systems may be a means of achieving break-through performance. There are a lot more opportunities to optimize both the component designs and the drive software to obtain superior performance.

As I mentioned this idea to technology providers, many expressed a belief in dynamic modeling becoming more common in the packaging machinery industry and providing some breakthroughs in performance. They report that only a handful of machine builders are currently taking advantage of mathematical modeling. They also stress the increasing ability of the drives themselves to optimize the machine dynamics. Bosch Packaging was touting a new generation of delta robots that have improved kinematics due to new software. Bosch-Rexroth showed their drives’ ability to detect and suppress vibration. B&R also spoke of suppressing vibration and compensating in real time for the system dynamics. Schneider Electric suggested eliminating the servo motor cogging by using feed-forward and other advanced control loop strategies within the drive. Beckhoff sees a need to model motors, drives, and machines. Both Schneider and Beckhoff stressed advantages to speed. Beckhoff mentioned the need for high precision, high performance synchronization in time frames of 100 nanoseconds, enabling builders to have reaction times in their machines of 60 microseconds. Schneider also sees benefits from being able to change the motion profile of an axis within every cycle of the machine, taking advantage of higher-speed networks and processors. The limiting axis of the machine may change as conditions change, and being able to detect this during runtime and adapt to it could be a game changer. Lief Juergensen of Schneider says that their controllers are able to change a cam profile within one cycle of the Sercos network.

Integration is the key
As machines reach the limits of increasing speed, some believe that more performance improvements will come from system optimization than from machine optimization. Having machines utilize those higher level integration strategies defined early on by OMAC will enable machines to talk with one another and with their human overseers to benefit from improved planning, reduced downtime, and better overall performance of entire packaging legs, cells, or lines. Most of the engineers that I spoke with expressed support for the belief that the next breakthrough will come with the full integration of information from the top floor to the shop floor.

Some of this is in place already. For example, onboard drive diagnostics get passed up from the bottom through software functionality such as that offered by B&R’s System Diagnostic Manager. From the opposite direction, orders get passed down from the top level ERP system to at-line or in-line printers to enable order quantities as small as one. In both cases, integration is the key.

Increasing number of changeovers requires more efficient changeovers. Maurizio Tarozzi of B&R pointed out that with more companies manufacturing for markets in multiple countries, in-line printing offers the opportunity to put country-specific information on the label to satisfy regulatory requirements or to put village-specific information on the package to satisfy marketing needs.

Most engineers mentioned aids to integration such as PackML, Weihenstephan protocol, MTConnect, and SECS/GEM protocol—each of which is meant to solve the same problem for packaging, bottling, machining, and electronic fabrication. Schneider’s Juergensen believes that these standards are all so similar that they should converge, maybe in another dog year. (Isn’t it unfortunate that there is not a neutral arbiter that could cause this to happen in a people year as the computer and cell phone industries seem able to do?)

But beyond tag and protocol standards, engineers are talking about something much greater. Gerd Hoppe of Beckhoff described the work taking place in Europe on Industry 4.0 or the Internet of Things. Perhaps GEN 4 depends upon Industry 4.0, which imagines automatic configuration of smart cities, smart health, and smart manufacturing. This will take a breakthrough in both technology and the cultural divide that often exists between IT and manufacturing engineering. Those predicting this development aren’t talking about just passing streams of data around, but massive use of computer power in interconnected machines. Motors and drives will have electronic nameplates. Machines will describe their own features through an electronic passport, allowing upper level systems to browse lower level systems to figure out what they do and what they are able to do. Following the model of USB devices plugged in to your computer, a machine may identify itself as a flow wrapper and tell the network that it is capable of running at some speed x, that it supports PackML, and that it contains a recipe management system that is structured like “this.” Work on self organizing sensor networks has been underway for some time, and last year a special interest group of ODVA was initiated to move machines in the direction of self-identifying.

Still need to optimize Gen 3
Several companies mentioned that Gen 3 machines are far from being optimized. Size is one area being worked on by many, and this can be a big payoff for end users who are short of space in existing factories and want to avoid paying for square footage in new factories. Smaller size may also mean less mass, less inertia, and less complexity, all of which eventually lead to less cost.

Cabinet-free construction was being discussed at interpack with the Schubert cabinet-free design most fully demonstrating the concept. Using Bosch-Rexroth drives and motors with Festo valves, all mounted directly on the machine and networked together, there was little need for a cabinet as we now know it. One also wonders about the future need for controls engineers or systems integrators, because these configurations will largely be worked out by the technology suppliers. Modularity is also a benefit of cabinet-free design, allowing machine builders to customize machines using standardized modules, reducing production time and variability in the field and increasing support capability. Developing and applying good cable management practices will be an opportunity for many of these designs, especially in environments where dust or moisture may be present. And one final “less is more idea” involves shedding the HMI. One supplier reported that printing presses are being delivered that use only a tablet or smart phone as an HMI. What’s good for the converter may also be good for the packager.

Other ways of reducing machine size are by using fully integrated robotics, building customized arms, and using control vendor kinematics for implementation. Italian machine builder CAMA went a step further, internally developing robotic software that allowed the placement of 12 pickers in a space of 10 square meters with overlapping work envelopes and operating together with complete collision avoidance. Several engineers pointed out that the true integration of robotics and vision as components in machines is still in its infancy. The converse is also true, that robots have not yet fulfilled their capability to do more than move product. Schneider described a pick-process-and-place application where a robot not only picks up a fish and places it into a can, but cuts, slices, and cleans the fish along the way.

CAMA and a couple other suppliers showed machines at interpack that utilized either the Rockwell or Beckhoff versions of the linear motor racetrack. But there were fewer than six such machines on the floor, reminiscent of rotary servo penetration in 1993. The makers of these systems believe that they are a disruptive technology that will play a significant role in Gen 4. They certainly do have potential for significant reduction in the size of machines. Other direct drive servo configurations may yet to be seen. One can only hope that the patent issues surrounding these devices can be resolved in a manner that they become readily available as components for a wide range of applications that will benefit the packaging arena.

As an engineering colleague of mine frequently pointed out, all good ideas eventually evolve into work, for engineers and others. In the area of engineering, several technology providers suggested that better and more integrated design tools will lead to better machines. Dr. Thomas Cord of Lenze discussed the need for mechanical engineering, controls engineering, and HMI middleware tools to cooperate effectively. Machine builders need better ways to manage the technology in the machines and deal with the complexity, especially of the ever-increasing software components. He believes that before we can get to Industry 4.0, we need to optimize the execution of Gen 3 machines. Siemens, which owns Unigraphics, sees the need for the tools to support collaboration and parallel design. Siemens is not just concentrating on the automation tools, but also the mechanical design tools. While in the future there will still be some specialization, the trend must be to a systems engineering or mechatronics engineering approach. For now, products like Rockwell’s RAPID aim to ease the integration burden and software tools are available to help analyze designs. Schneider’s acquisition of Wonderware should provide new opportunities for integration of tools and applications in the machine space.

So what is a Gen 4 machine? I’m not sure that it is clear that any one breakthrough will dominate the transition. But with simultaneous forward movement on all of the topics discussed here, machines are certainly going to change in significant ways. Dynamic modeling of machines; improved advanced control algorithms in drives; faster processors and networks; Industry 4.0 or the Internet of Things; greater integration of machines, robotic arms, and vision; less-is-more modular design; new types of linear motors; and better engineering tools with a mechatronics focus—these will all provide huge opportunities for change and improvement. When someone identifies a clear transition to recognizable Gen 4 machines, let us all know.

Founding of OMAC Packaging Workgroup
During the latter half of the 1990s, with the urging and support of European technology providers, packaging applications using motion control technology began to appear in the U.S. trade press, including this publication. At the 1999 ARC conference, talk was initiated about forming an OMAC working group that would concentrate on packaging. OMAC was then a group focused upon the machine tool industry, led by companies such as General Motors and Boeing. OMAC stood for Open Modular Architecture Control. Later that same year at Pack Expo Las Vegas, a meeting was sponsored by ARC, Packaging World, and Indramat where a panel of engineers from five of the US’s top CPG companies addressed an audience of over 100 people representing packaging machine builders, control suppliers, and other packagers. Participants agreed to meet again in February 2000 at the ARC Automation Strategies Conference, where 50 people representing the same constituents and PMMI agreed to form an OMAC working group focused on the use of motion control in packaging machinery.

A mission, vision, and operating principles document was adopted in March of 2000 at a meeting held in the offices of Packaging World during Manufacturing Week in Chicago. Over 70 people attended the meeting, at which PMMI agreed to endorse and participate in the group. The meeting concluded with the newly-formed OMAC Motion for Packaging Workgroup focused on 4 key areas: Business Benefits; Education; Technical Architecture & Connectivity; and Programming Languages and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). In subsequent years, as the emphasis moved away from bringing motion control awareness to the U.S., the name was changed to the OMAC Packaging Workgroup. The PackML initiative, which is now OPW’s primary focus, grew out of a suggestion brought to the group from Markem.

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