Labor scarcity and the probability of recession mean that companies, including contract manufacturers and packagers (CM/CPs) should invest in automation, said Patrick Luce, economist for ITR Economics suggested at the Foundation for Supply Chain Solutions (F4SS) conference. With that insight in mind, we spoke to Sean Spees, market segment manager of consumer packaged goods at engineering firm Bosch Rexroth, to discuss the potential value of automation for CM/CPs.
Melissa Griffen: Why would CM/CPs want more flexibility in their lines, considering they seem to already have what they need?
Sean Spees: Customer demands and buying patterns—such as e-commerce, direct-to-consumer, or bulk purchasing versus in-store buying—change day by day. SKU’s are increasing daily by size and quantity. Changeovers are critical not only to meet SKU demand changes, but also to reduce downtime and increase vertical startup.
Ultimate flexibility with material handling solutions and controls are at the forefront for success, which is something CM/CPs lack even though they have the machinery in place to produce certain products. With contract manufacturers, an investment has to make sense from flexibility/changeover, controls, and material handling standpoints.
MG: Is there any particular technology that would be a good starting point for CM/CPs specifically that will increase and improve flexibility?
SS: From my experience, it would be collaborative robotics and conveyors. The larger end user customers are entrusting these co-packers and co-mans to get their products out the door. They need to have the labor to do it and most packaging processes that I've seen have been heavily manual. However, look at the robotic side, especially with what these collaborative robots are doing. For instance, Kassow, who Rexroth just acquired, has a 7-axis robot, which means it can do several different types of pick and place type applications and palletizing. It almost mimics a human being when you start looking at what these can do from a functionality standpoint.
Collaborative robotics are a huge item now within consumer package goods, and the same with contract manufacturing where you can safely work next to these robots. They can be task-oriented where they can pick and place items either into a package or they can do assembly.
Downstream, they can also be used for palletizing where you don't have an individual maybe picking up a lighter case over and over again which is awful for ergonomics, one, and safety, two. The last thing that a customer needs is a workman's comp claim and so forth which is very costly. These cobots are not necessarily a replacement of labor, it's more a redirection of labor, so these folks can do other things in the plant to make it more productive.
MG: What effect do cobots and conveyors have on downtime and changeovers?
SS: Let's start with downtime. Cobots don't call in sick, they don’t take lunch. They're very easy to program, simple, and they can work long hours or even in a “lights out” environment. So you can get more uptime for that. Along with collaborative robots, you've also got autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that can transport product throughout a plant environment vs. having somebody walk around.
For changeovers, a lot of that's going to be based on individual OEMs. For instance, being able to change the guide rails on a conveyor easily. In this example, plastic chain conveyors provide modularity and flexibility. These can be configured in various formats such as incline/decline or custom wedges for overhead transport that will create more floorspace in the manufacturing environment and provide easy change-over for various SKUs to quickly change out for different product demands.
While it can be done manually, there is also a demand for auto changeover on the machine. I've seen them in high speed cartoners in the cereal world, where when they change over from a 12-ounce to a 7-ounce type carton, the operator goes up, pushes a button, and 80 to 90% of the machine changes itself over through these servo and stepper motor products. There's still some manual adjustment, but if you're able to recuperate time, which is the most valuable asset for production, by gaining 15 to 30 minutes a shift by doing auto changeover, that's great. The same applies to vertical start-up.
MG: How would you see artificial intelligence and/or predictive maintenance being useful for CM/CPs?
SS: When you look at demand of vendors and other OEMs out in the field, including CM/CPs, it all comes back to, "How do I keep my lines running?"
The predictive maintenance side of it is crucial because you can get the feedback through the control system on machines that can say, "Hey, listen, you are X amount of cycles or days or hours away from failure." If a motor or drive goes down and you knew ahead of time to have that in stock, it's a fairly simple change-out and you're back in production vs. being down for a couple days or weeks waiting for either a technician or a part. The predictive maintenance AI part of it is a crucial piece from the controls perspective.
MG: What all would be involved for CM/CPs trying to apply predictive maintenance to their machines?
SS: It depends upon the communication platform and the controls platform within these machines, as well as the level of security, as the end-user gets to choose where their information goes. There are certain platforms that are very rigid where they can't perform these actions, or they're using older technologies. It helps to have a more open ecosystem-type platform that is app-based with cloud functionality, where you can go through an iPad or other device, download apps that are critical to your production, and communicate with the machines. It's not through plugging a laptop into a PLC and then trying to navigate through different code or different logic. It's very simple and upfront and open.
It's not overnight. It will take some time to do—and some definitely some patience and there's a little bit of learning involved, but once they see the benefits of it, then it'll be all worth the investment.
MG: What difficulties could CM&Ps run into when making the switch?
SS: There is a hardware factor. You either remove and/or replace different controls platforms with different computers, logic platforms, sometimes different motors, depending on how the system is set up.
You also have the software factor of learning something new. A lot of manufacturers are afraid of what they don't know. The six worst words in manufacturing are, "We've always done it this way." That culture has to change and adapt to moving into the future. There is a learning curve involved in this. When you look at certain controls platforms that are out there, they aren't even teaching them anymore. They're not obsolete, but very outdated. We're in a situation now where a certain generation of folks have been used to certain types of platforms, and they've got to learn to make that change too.
It's a crawl before we run, but it's slowly but surely evolving into to what the future of technology and factory of the future is going to be.
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MG: We talked about how the cobots can help alleviate labor retention issues. What other technologies can help with that and the supply chain issues that have continued to be highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
SS: As far as COVID goes, while we're not out of it yet, we are closer to normal manufacturing type processes. But labor is always going to be an issue. From a turnover standpoint, it takes a lot of training time and money to bring new people on board and get them acclimated, and by the time you do that, they're leaving already. Robots are one thing, but easier operation through an open platform and easier-to-use technologies overall help as well.
How easy is it for operators to change over a machine? Do they have to turn wrenches to do it, or can they push a button? We want things easier. We want things convenient. We want things right now. So we have to work towards more of that convenience for these operators. Whether it's eliminating unsafe or unergonomic tasks, easier changeovers, more flexibility in the types of machinery that they work with, just being less rigid as far as overall technology. Anything that we can do to help these operators to enjoy their day better, those are going to be those types of technologies.