A Unilever perspective on controls integration

A recent lunch with David Atherton, engineering director personal care liquids at Unilever, produced a number of insights into the packaging machinery controls integration and automation space. To wit:

  • *Western makers of packaging machinery are continuing to explore a number of options where competition from China is concerned. One strategy gaining some traction is to have a Chinese partner get involved in the fabrication of a machine but to have the design responsibility and all intellectual property remain firmly—or at least as firmly as possible—in the grip of the Western firm that partners with the Chinese builder.

  • *Despite all the efforts by the OMAC Packaging Work Group, Make2Pack, and a number of others who are trying to foster a more standards-based approach to packaged goods manufacturing and packaging, there are still too many proprietary controls components in the marketplace. This continues to throw up barriers that prevent a smooth flow of actionable information between the packaging machines on the plant floor and the business systems that drive a packaged goods manufacturer.

    "We've gotten very good at getting the demand signal from the Wal-Marts of the world into our business systems," says Atherton. "But to then have that signal go from our business systems to the plant? We're not there yet."

  • *Packaging machinery builders in North America continue to find it difficult to harness the technical horsepower needed to design, build, and service the kind of next-generation packaging equipment that a company like Unilever requires. "The talent pool isn't that deep," says Atherton. He points to no single cause as the source of this situation, but he wonders if things would be better if we on this side of the Atlantic had more of the technical school tradition that places like Germany, for instance, have.
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