Knockin' on the door

My pals at sister magazine Automation World have focused a lot of their editorial attention lately on wireless technologies.

Look no farther than their October cover.

So I thought I’d shake a few trees myself to see if this “transformational technology,” as many are calling it, has been knocking much on packaging’s door. My first few calls were to industry analysts and consultants. All of them agreed that engineers on the processing, warehousing, logistics, and distribution sides of manufacturing are turning to wireless with increasing frequency. But they haven’t seen the technology surfacing much at all in packaging operations.

At that point, I figured it was time to scare up a new topic for my November column. But then, serendipitously enough, three e-mails reaching my inbox in the space of four days all carried news of wireless connectivity in packaging applications. One is unfolding in the U.S. food sector. Mark D’Onofrio, president of Lock Inspection Systems, a maker of metal detection systems, can’t name the food company that is involved. But in general terms he describes the application this way.

“Food and pharma customers for the most part have been slow to embrace the idea of collecting data in any automated fashion, relying instead on the more traditional method of clipboard, pen, and paper. Then around two or three years ago, they began coming around to the idea of automating this data collection process. In our case, for example, they began to take data from as many as 40 metal detectors throughout the plant, all networked via Ethernet or some comparable communications protocol, so that the data could be stored and accessed quickly and much more efficiently on a PC or PLC. Having reached that stage in their quest for automated data acquisition, they’re now beginning to inquire if there’s a way to avoid all the conduit and cabling inherent in an Ethernet-based network. And that has led them to wireless technology.”

Sure enough, wireless applications in packaging are beginning to surface. A good example can be found at Nestlé Purina’s pet food operations. Like other manufacturers, the firm found wireless to be useful first in the warehouse. But as the technology has improved and as pressure on manufacturers to be as efficient as possible has mounted, it was only a matter of time before engineers at Nestlé Purina saw wireless opportunities in packaging, as well.

“We’ve only begun to apply wireless to packaging,” says Sentekin Can, principal controls engineer at Nestlé Purina. “But we see a time in the not-too-distant future when a wireless system could replace Ethernet connectivity between the packaging machines on our plant floor and our ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] system.” As is the case at Lock’s food company installation, the key driver at Nestlé Purina is a desire to be unencumbered by the conduits and cabling that are part and parcel of Ethernet connectivity.

You’ll have a great chance to learn more about how Nestlé Purina has brought wireless to packaging next March 31 in Chicago at the Packaging Automation Forum, which is sponsored by both Packaging World and Automation World. Sentekin Can will be delivering a presentation at the event (for more information, visit; or contact me).

A number of issues still need to be addressed before the wireless future is upon us. Interference, for example, may be a problem. And caution will have to be exercised when it comes to sending real-time data from the plant floor to an ERP system. If the data isn’t properly aggregated, it can’t be absorbed or managed by ERP systems.

But having said that, there seems little doubt that wireless has indeed come a-knockin’ on packaging’s door.

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