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Primer: Automating End-of-Line Packaging

Automation can make it more automatic that products go out of the door shipshape and ship-worthy.

End of Line Stretch Wrapper

End-of-line (EoL) packaging is composed of the last operations performed before product is shipped. In the race for profits, the shipping docks are the in-house finish line. It’s better to have arrived via a timed, steady pace, than to have arrived slowed or stopped. By that analogy, EoL packaging needs to be smoothly integrated into a facility’s overall packaging-line operations. Such integration is a cost-effective way to increase productivity and efficiency. 

Regardless of its size, any company can be faced with decisions about automating EoL packaging. That’s because it’s not just about the present amount of automation, but whether it is the most suitable for that company. The recognition that automation bestows benefits is an easy one, but it does not preclude having to grapple with a host of related considerations. What level of automation is warranted, for example, full or semi-? Can a present machine or station be retrofitted? Short of a complete EoL overhaul, how are individual operations to be prioritized in terms of benefits derived from their automation? 

There are unargued benefits of automation, although their importance is company-specific and sometimes industry-specific. Automation, for example, always involves a machine vs. manpower dynamic. Machines perform with a combination of speed, accuracy, consistency, and tirelessness that manual labor is unable to match. But manpower seldom, if ever, is completely eliminated. It can serve us well, then, to think in terms of a machine-manpower interface. 

In further proof that automation is not the unwavering nemesis of manpower, benefits also accrue to the labor force. Workers are freed from tedious tasks and thereby are assignable to more rewarding utilization of their time and skills. Automation reduces workers’ accidents and injuries, too. One example, serving for many, involves manual palletizing (positioning and loading). Pallets themselves typically weigh between 35 and 50 lb., not to mention the weights of what goes onto them. Together, that’s enough weight to induce chronic skeletomuscular ailments.

Another benefit of automation is the reduction in damaged goods. Any member of the supply chain—not only the retailer—can be a dissatisfied victim. All members of a supply chain know that there are expenses associated with the receipt, handling, separation, and accounting of damaged goods. Automation can foster greater goodwill among members, which is a type of competitive advantage.  

Although it’s necessary to enumerate the benefits of automation, it’s not sufficient. The benefits need to be quantified in dollars and cents. Benefits need to be quantified as to what’s being lost by not having optimal automation, and conversely, what is to be gained by achieving optimal automation. It’s a wave-tossed sea but it has to be navigated, otherwise reaching the proper port of automation becomes a rudderless voyage. Packaging professionals must be aboard, for self-evident reasons. But so too must other crewmembers (don’t forget, packaging is interdisciplinary in nature). As for those others, the following order of mention is not indicative of a ranking of importance. 

The finance/accounting department needs to be involved. Remember, EoL packaging automation must compete for the limited resources of a company’s capital expenditure budget. The justifying numbers, therefore, had better be convincing in accordance with the company’s metrics, whether that’s payback period, return-on-investment, or some variation thereof. 

The purchasing/procurement department has a role since automation means the acquisition of machinery and equipment. Suppliers have to be identified, evaluated, and chosen, along with a hammering out of contractual terms. 

The production/manufacturing department will have the day-to-day involvement with the automation. Hence, no department is a greater stakeholder in the effective and efficient integration of EoL packaging with the totality of plant operations. 

Automation gives some decision makers pause because there is a component of forecasting. The chosen automation must remain relevant over the forecasted future, during which markets and their trends and drivers don’t stay static. To the contrary, they can be in constant shift. It places a premium on the type of automation that is, in a word, flexible. Easy changeover is part of that. On a related note, it behooves a company to look as far down a timeline as feasible. That’s true even if, by present circumstances, it might seem that the company is over-automating. 

As we mentioned, there are company-specific aspects to automation. Still, after all of the decisional smoke has cleared, a company is most likely to end up with a version of one of two types of EoL packaging: centralized or decentralized. An example of centralization is multiple lines feeding into one EoL packaging area.  An example of decentralization is each of multiple lines feeding into an EoL area that’s literally located at the end of that line.

Centralized EoL packaging is not inherently superior to decentralized EoL packaging nor vice-versa. Differentiating criteria include floorspace, equipment utilization rates, ease of maintenance, and the consequences from breakdowns and stoppages, among others.

Whether centralized or decentralized, EoL packaging constitutes machines and auxiliary equipment, their combination depending on the types of products involved. There are two operations that are part of the majority of EoL packaging systems: palletizing and stretch-wrapping. They will be the respective subjects of the next two columns, so keep an eye out.

Sterling Anthony, CPP, consults in packaging, marketing, logistics, and human-factors.  A former faculty member at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, his contact info is:100 Renaissance Center, Box-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313/531-1875; [email protected]

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