Of all the phases involved in getting consumer packaged goods to market, it's packaging and processing that has the most potential for automation.
That’s according to PMMI Business Intelligence’s 2022 report “The Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing.” Warehousing ranked second on the list.
The PMMI survey of 119 CPG representatives conducted for the report found more than half (55%) consider packaging and processing the most useful area to implement automation technologies. Distribution, fulfillment and warehousing came a distant second with 13%, 31% considered both categories to have equal outlook advancement, and 1% cited neither.
COVID-19 Accelerates Packaging and Processing Automation
This conclusion falls in line with findings from PMMI’s June 2021 report “Packaging and Processing – Coming through COVID-19,” that found a strong need to invest in new packaging equipment, with 84% of survey respondents indicating that they increased their investment in 2021.
Automation of production processes is perceived to have many long-term benefits, including increased speed and efficiency on the line and ultimately increased productivity.
Almost a third (31%) of respondents in the 2021 report said they were currently deploying automated machinery on their production lines as a substitute for manpower and will continue to do so. Another 30% said they had plans to introduce automation in 2021.
That 2021 analysis emphasized the pandemic was the driver behind this surge in automation, but these changes will most likely be permanent.
Automation in Warehousing and Storage
Warehousing and storage were lower down on the automation priority list, but the consequences of not automating here are significant.
The ever-increasing demands of e-commerce mean that CPGs are striving to build faster production lines, creating larger volumes of product. This advantage can be lost at the end of the line due to the largely manual nature of storage and retrieval processes in warehouses.
American CPGs report that the majority of operations relating to storage and retrieval of materials, pallet transport and distribution are still carried out by human operatives.
In the PMMI survey, 68% of CPGs said packaging materials receiving and storage management is highly manual in their plants. Raw material receiving and storage management came close behind, with 61% still using mostly manual operations.
Over half of CPGs (59%) said pallet transport and storage/retrieval was still highly manual. Less noted for use of manual operations was shipping and distribution (36%), secondary packaging (35%), and warehouse management (34%).
In terms of development, warehouse and logistics automation technologies are lagging behind the automation of production lines, by approximately five years according to one respondent.
It’s also more expensive to automate or semi-automate a warehouse than it is a production line, but prices are gradually falling, and the technology is advancing.
Perceptions of Warehouse Automation Vary
Some industry experts working at CPGs are noticing that end-of-line non-automated processes in storage facilities can create bottlenecks that put a brake on production.
The acute shortage of labor in warehouses is making the problem worse. Automation is a potential solution and could be a game changer for CPGs looking for growth.
However, there is a disconnect between the perceptions of industry experts and those of engineers and executives at CPG companies. Only 13% see automation of warehousing processes as a top priority.
That said, one survey respondent from an OEM commented that the majority of inquiries regarding automated solutions they received were in relation to warehousing. OEMs interviewed tended to consider automation of end-of-line processes a significant business opportunity for CPGs.
“Having the ability to require less labor, fewer forklifts, less space, lower footprint and higher density where everything in the warehouse is more automated… increases throughput and capacity without necessarily needing to build more buildings and without needing to hire more people,” according to one OEM.
Challenges for Automation of Existing Warehouses
There are hurdles to consider when automating existing warehouses. Buildings designed for manual handling and forklift truck traffic might not be the ideal layout for automated solutions.
When automation technologies are used correctly, warehouses can be smaller and more space efficient, but this often requires engineers to rethink plant layout. Further, the cost, time and down-time implications of making large-scale changes are often too high for medium or smaller CPG companies.
Some warehouses may also be too small and poorly laid out. A representative from one OEM commented, “I think it’s going to be a struggle for people to retrofit [automation] into existing plants..”
But the advantages of automated warehousing are clear: It enhances a company’s growth potential. Traditional manual processes create pinch points, which can limit a company’s ability to expand and grow output.
Automating warehouses would increase available space and could also make way for new production lines or increased automation of existing lines.
Source: PMMI Business Intelligence, 2022 The Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing
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