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General Mills on packaging controls

Gregg Stedronsky, director of packaging engineering at General Mills, shared these thoughts recently in a phone conversation:

- The industry is developing some very visionary people who are helping move information technology forward, and that’s good. These folks must be careful to avoid creating the perception that they believe information capture is more important than putting cases out the door. Packaged goods companies appropriately view cases out the door as the most important part of the packaging process. I believe information should be a by-product of packaging. As packages flow inside a factory, information should be extracted so you can more effectively see inside these processes.

- Should better use of information help you get more cases out the door? Sure, but what are you willing to pay for that information. How many more cases out the door will you get? Who in the factory will commit to using the information tools you implement? In real life, does it work and is it worth the effort? These are the questions that automation experts must help answer.

- Historically the use of information was centered around improving the efficiency of operating the lines and that will continue. But in the demand-based world we’re entering, I think manufacturers will be required to more efficiently schedule lines to fully utilize their assets. This will require a different level of information use.

- Getting back to those visionary people we spoke of earlier, I believe in that vision, too. In fact, I’ve spent three years helping sell this vision inside General Mills. We’ve put in a lot of information systems and built good tools for downtime tracking, for example. We’re probably as far along as any packaged goods company in this area.

- Some say, ‘It’s more work to implement and maintain an information system on a packaging line than it’s worth.’ Looking forward one could argue ‘That may be true today, but it won’t be true in the future, and we’ve got to build tracks to tomorrow.’ It wasn’t that long ago that if you had a PC and you wanted to connect a printer, you had to buy from the PC maker because it was the only printer that would work. Today, anybody’s printer works with anybody’s computer.

- Why, in packaging, can’t I plug two things together and have them both feed a common data base? Because the industry hasn’t provided that level of standardization.

- I’ve been to conferences where companies and suppliers share the vision of system level and ERP level integration and everyone nods approvingly, but few have actually pulled it off. It seems to me a lot of work remains to actually deliver this vision.

- The packaging machinery industry is very fragmented. I deal with over 60 packaging machinery OEMs. On the processing side, that number is much smaller. Of course the two areas are dramatically different. On the processing side, you buy pumps and kettles and valves and install the controls system you want. Packaging machines, on the other hand, come with a controls system. It’s not easy to reinvent if you don’t happen to like it or it doesn’t integrate well into your factory.

Many of these topics will be explored in the May 24 Packaging Automation Forum at the Chicago Marriott O’Hare, sponsored by Packaging World and Automation World magazines. To see the Forum program and to register for this unique event, visit www.packworld.com/paf.

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