A conversation with Rick Lidington is always a good opportunity to see where trends in packaging machinery controls are headed. Lidington is president at packaging machinery OEM FMS Packaging Systems, a member of the Ilapack Group. Here are some of the observations he had when I asked him recently about what he’s seeing in the way of new things in controls.
I think it’s started to plateau, to be honest. But there is still so much you can do with some of the innovations that have come through in recent years. Take the integrated servo motor and drive, for example. Getting rid of the big control panels and minimizing wiring are two things these integrated motor/drive solutions offer, and that’s still a very meaningful step forward when it comes to designing and building a packaging machine.
I think robotics is probably going to become more prevalent. I think what happened with robotics is when it first came along it was integrators who were making them available. They were the people that would install these robotic solutions, but they weren’t necessarily packaging people. They were local integrators, and in some cases they gave robots a bad name. I think what’s happening more now is that the machine manufacturers themselves are embracing the use of robots, whereas previously they didn’t.
Schubert is a fascinating supplier of robots for packaging operations. They have one company that makes parts, which is in one part of the town, and they have another company that designs and assembles the robots. Then they have another company that is in another part of the town that is an assistance group. They operate them as three separate companies with three separate profit areas and they only do robots. They also like their own software. They use proprietary motors, but all the software is theirs and all the controllers are theirs. They are probably the best. They are the most expensive, but they are the best. They haven’t had the impact in the United States that they have had in the rest of the world or certainly not the impact they’ve had in Europe. That could be attributed, I think, to a number of reasons, one of which is Europe, in my view, is looking more for innovative packaging in terms of point of display and that sort of things. The carton shape or case designs and stuff like that, flow wrapping or whatever, is much more prevalent in Europe, I think, than in the U.S. Here it’s about speed and productivity, and robots can’t always run at the highest speeds.
One new technology we are keeping an eye on is 3D Printing. It’s a layering technology that uses a plastic that is in liquid format when you print it. It solidifies quickly. So when you come over it again, it builds up as the 3D image. There have been a lot of improvements, I think, mainly with the materials that they can use. At one time, like five or six years ago, with 3D printing the end product was very fragile. So it was used for prototype parts only. But as they have developed the process and the plastics, now you can actually make parts. We looked at it for change parts and so on. But it’s still quite expensive. It is more expensive than traditional machining. So, we haven’t actually gone into that, but we have definitely examined it, fairly recently in fact.