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10 trends in packaging operations for 2008

Aside from the incessant drive to make packaging machinery more productive, the coming year will see the conscious leveraging of automated packaging systems as a strategic business advantage.

According to a new white paper, here are trends to watch for – and hopefully implement in your packaging operations.

Click to receive the original 12-page white paper in pdf format.

1. Progressive companies quit treating packaging lines as overhead

Packaging engineers sometimes lament that they are an afterthought to manufacturing. Manufacturing thinks marketing calls all the shots. Marketing feels it plays second fiddle to finance. Finance jumps when the CEO calls, but Wall Street keeps the CEO up at night. Meanwhile the employees’ 401(k) investments drive the Street in this vicious circle!

In reality, we all go out and buy the products that come in the neat new packages. From putting coffee in filter pods to plastic coffee cans, it’s obvious what innovative packages can do.

Forward thinking companies are now paying closer attention to how their packaging systems can get those neat new packages into the market faster and do it more cost effectively. For example, Miller Brewing, Frito-Lay and P&G Gillette shared their future needs at a recent Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute event (

Conclusion: expect to see more attention paid, at higher levels of management, to ways that automated packaging systems can contribute to bottom and top line objectives.

2. CPGs recognize that most SKUs are package changeovers

One reason for this newfound appreciation of packaging is the recognition that a typical consumer packaged goods company has ten package SKUs for every product SKU. That same batch of chocolate can come in many different size bars and multipacks.

And there will be twice as many SKUs if the European Commission goes ahead with its plan to ban supplemental English units of measure on January 1, 2010 and require labeling that is solely metric. Virtually every product made in the U.S. and exported to Europe would need to be run with two different labels. And not all U.S. states permit consumer quantities to be packed with metric-only labeling. So European products would also need a second label for import into the U.S.

The good news is that most pint bottles have already been replaced by half liters. But we have an awful lot of one pound packages that will likely change to 500 gram formats, too.

Conclusions: don’t expect labeling to go all-metric until it becomes obvious that the European regulation is inevitable. Do, however, anticipate that companies seeking easy ways to reduce packaging costs will both weed out nonessential package sizes and go with machinery that’s more adjustable.

For example, stick packs have become immensely popular as part of on-the-go lifestyles. The popular stick pack machine is going to be the one that can change pack size from 4” all the way to 8” in length (or should we say 100mm to 200mm) by fingertip from the operator’s touchscreen and change diameters with simple change parts (

3. Lean packaging operations get the cost out

Expect long-overdue techniques -- such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness to reduce downtime -- to start getting more traction.

Schneider Electric and ELAU, its packaging automation specialist, believe so strongly in the potential of these techniques that they are sponsoring a series of workshops (

The Packaging Line Performance workshops will teach hundreds of packagers how to lean out their packaging operations.

4. Packaging machine OEMs become packaging systems providers

Historically, most packaging machine builders have concentrated on the workings of their machine. Engineers at the packagers’ plant or perhaps a systems integrator worried about how to integrate the lines.

Increasingly, OEMs are being asked to guarantee their equipment’s performance – performance that’s probably being impacted by upstream or downstream machinery.

Packagers have fewer engineering resources to take responsibility for the entire system. Yet, they also need more production data as well as better controllability of packaging lines. And what good is isolated performance data for individual machines?

The need for interaction between packaging machines and even with upstream manufacturing processes is causing two trends. One is the turnkey, single vendor packaging system.

The other is alliances, such as the relatively new Packaging End of Line Solutions (PELS) group of companies, taking responsibility for integration, documentation, training and support of their multi-vendor installation (

Conclusion: either way, expect more machinery suppliers to add value by becoming packaging systems providers.

A perfect example is Nuspark Engineering (, a Toronto-based company that has partnered with ELAU for modular automation and Schneider Electric for a global electrical solution.

Nuspark has a delta robot case packing module that can double throughput in the same envelope simply by hanging a second robot arm on the module. They can supply not only all the equipment modules for cartoning through palletizing – they specialize in putting together all the servo conveying and infeed systems to connect the modules in minimal floorspace.

And because they distribute their servo modules ( out to the equipment being automated, adding new modules doesn’t require expanding control cabinets. It literally is plug-and-play.

5. Packaging modules replace packaging machines

When machinery builders evolve to systems providers like Nuspark has done, they no longer think their business is about crating and shipping a machine. They start to think in terms of creating standardized modules to configure a customized packing solution.

And packagers can start thinking about rearranging these packaging modules to package different products.

So, expect greatly increased reconfigurability that will reduce risk in capital expenditures and adapt faster to changing consumer requirements.

This sounds good, but to make packaging modules plug-and-play takes modular software, modular control hardware and modular mechanical designs.

Conclusion: to achieve this, encourage greater collaboration between your packaging system designers and their automation providers – a model implemented several years ahead of its time by German packaging systems provider Harro Hoefliger (

6. Machineability: the biggest challenge to sustainable packaging?

As sustainable packaging conferences proliferate (, the cart needs to get connected with the horse. That is, a variety of new materials and package designs are destined for the packaging floor. But some of the most promising ideas may perish for lack of machinery capable of running them.

Conclusion: plan to purchase machinery with a new level of flexibility, beyond what you’re anticipating to need to run today’s packages. Think reconfigurability. This fits in well with the modular concept. It also requires automation with a broad range of adjustment. Robots come to mind for their reprogrammability, but feedback is the fundamental enabler.

Everyone knows that packaging machines use lots of servo motors these days. But what makes a servo motor different from a regular one? Feedback. Any engineer worth his or her salt at ELAU, which makes servos exclusively for packaging machinery, can tell you that.

It is the feedback device on the back of that motor that allows the control system to make infinitesimal and continual adjustments. So you can run thinner or thicker gauge materials, or recycled or renewable materials with rougher surfaces.

That same feedback can also help you take the pulse of your packaging operation, yielding production data and maintenance advisories.

7. Do you recall Design for Disassembly?

Although you’re not hearing much about it these days, DfD is still out there, for everything from cars to electronics ( Expect to hear more about Design for Disassembly not only of products, but of packaging.

Ever try to recycle a dental floss container? One well known brand has a plastic spool, plastic housing and a plastic top with a steel cutter. It’s exceptionally disassemblable (that may be a new word) except for that cutter. Redesign it with a sharp, molded-in plastic cutting edge and it’s not only DfD, you’ve eliminated the costs of a part and an assembly step.

Take fresh egg packaging as another example. Instead of the familiar paperboard or foam egg cartons, some of the new cage-free, high-omega, organic brands are coming in clear plastic cartons with colorful printed paper inserts in the lid. This has a premium look, you can see the product through the transparent carton, and it’s really easy to separate the paper from the plastic.

Let’s not pick on paperboard, either – in Europe batteries come in neat all-paperboard hanger packs ( So there is no plastic blister to separate from the card upon disposal. And what a great way to stand out from all those other batteries in the display.

Conclusion: consumers will pay money to get these packages, so expect to see more of them.

8. Multinational companies standardize packaging systems worldwide

People are talking and emailing and web searching all over the world. In so doing, they’re learning not to reinvent the wheel.

One example is the Weihenstephan standard (, a once-obscure data acquisition model developed by the German beer brewing industry. But a brewer in South Africa found out about it, and that company also became active in a packaging standards group in the U.S., so now American CPGs are looking hard at this standard to standardize data acquisition at their plants worldwide.

What’s the big deal? Such standards allow old, less automated equipment to be moved to markets where labor costs are lower and look familiar to operators and technicians. Likewise, the new equipment will have less of a learning curve because even though it’s much faster, it looks the same to the operator.

And where the good ideas come from, nobody seems to care any more. Whereas there used to be a ‘not invented here’ syndrome that caused needless duplication and even served as trade barriers (like metric-only labeling), today’s global marketplace seeks harmonized standards.

The key to new standards entering the marketplace is to separate as much as possible the underlying technologies that must continue to advance from the parts that need to remain common to all. In other words, standardize the electrical plugs and wall sockets, not the appliances.

Conclusion: if your operations are global, encourage investigation into global suppliers implementing scalable, global standards to support you everywhere you operate.

9. As networks converge, new efficiencies emerge

Hard to believe it’s been ten years since the vision of a single network for machine automation started dawning on visionaries. The contradictory needs of synchronization for motion, low cost for I/O devices and bandwidth for data acquisition had long thwarted this convergence.

But that’s changed with new technologies – not unlike running your cable TV, phone and broadband on one wire.

For example, ELAU has announced it will standardize on SERCOS III, which does put all these tasks together across a fast, broad, economical Ethernet network (

Even with today’s SERCOS II technology, the company offers a single cable and snap-fit connector solution to replace four or more ( power, feedback motion and device network cables.

10. No contradiction between convenience and conservation

It’s actually been twenty years since the archeologists of The Garbage Project at the University of Arizona began sifting through the nation’s landfills ( They discovered that packaging did not constitute as much of the waste stream as most environmental activists assumed.

Rather, construction debris and newspapers were among the top cast-offs (interestingly, a lot of current DfD emphasis is being placed on building construction).

Likewise, societies without packaged food have much higher levels of food waste in their trash heaps. First of all, food processors waste nothing they can find a market for. But if we squeeze oranges at home, we throw away the peels. Processors sell the pulp, peel and seeds for use as ingredients in perfumes, a Brazilian brandy, cat litter, paint, resins, animal feeds, cleansers, emulsifiers, food flavorings and pectin. (
Second, packaged foods don’t spoil so fast, aren’t damaged in transit, and because they are offered in more practical quantities, less is wasted compared to bulk foods. (And please don’t say you’ll freeze the rest, because you know you’re just expending electricity to forestall the inevitable.)

So, the conclusion here is – feel good about pouring that stick pack of drink mix into your half liter water bottle. Don’t feel bad about drinking water from a bottle if you’re substituting that for a soft drink containing high fructose corn syrup. And since you’re getting your industry news electronically, feel good about keeping some of that paper out of the land fill, too. Even if you printed this story out, you’re only putting the articles that interest you on paper!

About ELAU

ELAU is the only company worldwide exclusively focused on the automation of packaging machinery. ELAU’s PacDrive™ automation system offers the only automation platform purpose-built for the packaging industry.

ELAU equips over $1 billion worth of the world’s best machines annually, with over 35,000 PacDrive systems already deployed in packaging machinery worldwide.

The market demands packaging operations that are more flexible and efficient to fulfill marketing, supply chain and global business strategies. ELAU innovations have enabled a revolution in mechanical, software and hardware modularity to deliver these agile packaging systems.

Now ELAU invites the worldwide packaging community to take modularity to the next level with our new PacDrive™ Intelligent Servo Modules.

Far more than just distributing the servo drive out onto the motor, servo modules enable plug-and-play modularity, literally plugging machine modules into or out of the packaging system to change functionalities, formats and capacities.

By vastly streamlining the networks, cabling, interconnects and electrical hardware, Intelligent Servo Modules smaller, simpler, more maintainable and reconfigurable.

For more information, visit or email