A food factory worker leaning on boxes in warehouse and smiling at the camera.

Sponsored by Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. 

Even just a few years ago, the food and beverage industry could be described as cautiously exploring packaging automation. For the most part, manufacturers took a similar approach to automation solutions as they did to purchasing any other type of equipment, as a way to increase production and decrease costs, with an expected ROI of three years at most.

Now, with the lingering impacts of the pandemic – namely, increased demand on top of an ever-growing labor shortage – the calculations have changed. F&B manufacturers are adopting automation as quickly as possible just to meet customer demand. As they assess their operations, many manufacturers are homing in on their end-of-line packaging processes as the next big opportunity to automate.

Mike Brewster, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Schneider Packaging Equipment Co.

To learn more about the current state of packaging automation, what the future will bring, and how manufacturers can set themselves up for success, I spoke with Mike Brewster, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Schneider Packaging Equipment.

Schneider Packaging Equipment, which is headquartered in upstate New York, delivered its first case packer in 1970 and has been at the forefront of robotic palletizing and case packing innovation ever since, including being one of the first packaging equipment suppliers to adopt robotics. Today, the company has about 150 employees and is part of Pacteon Group, which offers a full portfolio of integrated automated end-of-line packaging solutions across three brands: Schneider, ESS Technologies, and Phoenix Wrappers.

What’s the current state of packaging automation in food and beverage? How has it changed from before COVID?

Mike Brewster: Prior to COVID, the main reasons that manufacturers were looking to automate were for reliability, repeatability, and reallocation of other tasks. When we’d talk with them and learn their automation goals, they’d have a list of maybe two or three items. As an example, for health and safety reasons, they didn’t want to have an individual hand stacking heavy boxes onto a pallet.

Post-COVID, those reasons still exist, but also the labor pool has shrunk dramatically. Many individuals just did not reenter the workforce, and that’s what a lot of our customers and end users are struggling with now. They’re looking to automate any process that’s currently manual in order to keep their lines running and get product out the door.

What COVID did was it took conventional thinking about ROI and threw it out the window. The standard used to be roughly a three-year payback. Now it’s immediate. These manufacturers need to be able to get product out. There are lines that are non-operational right now simply because there is not the staff required to operate them. 

Where is automation currently making the biggest impact on packaging lines?

MB: Definitely in the palletizing process. Many organizations that implemented automation in early stages of their production line (filling, cartoning, etc.) still have people manually stacking cases onto a pallet.

Organizations that haven’t used automation before are introducing robotic palletizing to solve labor challenges. It’s difficult to find and retain employees to manually stack 60 lb. boxes consistently onto a pallet and then shrink-wrap it. And that’s before taking into account the ergonomic challenges that presents.

We’ve found that our customers’ thinking about automation, and particularly robotics, has shifted. Whereas 10 years ago, they might have said, “We want everything to be mechanical, not robotic,” today they’re saying, “You’re the experts, and if you advise us that robotics is the way to go, then we’ll go that way.”

When you look at the data, there’s no contest – it all boils down to reliability and repeatability. The mean time between failures is around 80,000 to 100,000 hours, and the quality is consistent. If I were hand stacking product for an 8- or 10-hour shift, my quality and output would probably deteriorate throughout the day. That doesn’t happen with robots. It’s incredible how well these machines work considering how little maintenance and interaction they actually require.

Also, an organization that’s using robotics will be able to scale much quicker than an organization that’s not using robotics. Say you have a goal of producing 20% more product this year. What do you need to accomplish that? Five years ago, you might have said, “We need to go hire 100 people.” I don’t know of any manufacturer that’s having a lot of success hiring 100 people right now. Instead, what if you deployed 10 robots that could be up and running in six months? That’s a huge advantage in terms of the ability to scale.

Where do you see the big opportunities in the next three to five years?

MB: We’re starting to be asked to incorporate AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) and AGVs (automated guided vehicles) into our solutions. So, say we provide a case packer, a palletizer, and a stretch wrapper from our affiliate company, Phoenix Wrappers. In the past, when that pallet was wrapped, someone would drive a forklift to move the pallet to the warehouse or a truck. Well, those employees are also tough to find, so manufacturers are interested in a fully automated process with AMRs and AGVs. We know that will be a huge area of growth for our customers.

What are the biggest obstacles you see to automation, and how does Schneider help customers overcome it?

MB: There’s a preconception that automation is extremely expensive. Obviously, it’s an investment, but the industry has come a long way, and the barrier to entry is much lower than it was five, or even three, years ago.

This is especially true when we look at collaborative robots, or cobots, which make it much more affordable and realistic for small and medium-sized companies to deploy automation than it used to be. Cobots aren’t as fast as guarded industrial robots and the payload capability is smaller, but they are a phenomenal tool in the right application, i.e., a small footprint, light product, and lower output.

In addition, many manufacturers also don’t think they have the right labor pool to interact with the machines. Here at Schneider, the way we look at it is that if you can operate an iPhone, you can operate our equipment. It’s extremely intuitive.

How can manufacturers best set themselves up to succeed with packaging automation?

MB: The first thing they need to do is identify a capable provider with a proven track record of implementing solutions. Look for a partner that has stood the test of time, belongs to relevant industry organizations, and has certifications to prove that they do things safely and properly.

Schneider is a FANUC authorized system integrator and certified service provider, and a Rockwell machine builder. We also build to standards set by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). These certifications set us apart from many other solution providers. Next is to determine whether the process can be automated as-is, or if adjustments are needed upstream before introducing automation. 

You also need to take into consideration the general flow of materials and people throughout the building. What do walkways look like in your plant? What is the material traffic flow? How do products get from point A to point B? Even small equipment takes up room and most organizations do not have the luxury of extra room to spare. So you need to be aware of what installing a robotic cell will do to the layout of the plant to keep operators efficient.

In addition to needing reliability and repeatability, food and beverage manufacturers need flexibility to adapt to changing consumer demands. How does Schneider handle this challenge?

MB: One of our proprietary solutions is OptiStak pallet generation software, which we co-developed with FANUC. Put yourself in the role of a manufacturer. Five years ago, if someone from marketing said to you, “We have a customer who needs these pallets shipped to them in this way,” you’d call us and either we could help you remotely, or sometimes we’d have to visit your facility to add that new unit load configuration into the machine. With OptiStak, you can add a new recipe in minutes right from the HMI. You can also quickly make adjustments to account for variables in production, such as overfilling by an upstream machine. So, that’s one way our solutions are flexible on the palletizing side.

For our case packers, we always design with flexibility in mind. So, if someone has a 12×12 case, we’re not going to design a machine to only handle those specifications. We give it a range, and within that range, we build in tolerance for various changes.

We also have a dedicated aftermarket division that focuses specifically on upgrades and modifications. We always encourage our end users to reach out to us before finalizing what a product is going to look like because we may have recommendations that won’t change anything aesthetically but would streamline equipment modifications in the future.

What other proprietary solutions does Schneider provide?

MB: We have an automated machine adjustment system called ProAdjust®. It’s our version of automatic changeover. Here again, the big advantages are reliability and repeatability, because with a simple press of a button, that machine will adjust to the exact points that it needs to accommodate a change in the production schedule.

This is especially important for organizations that have multiple shifts. Imagine that we’re doing manual changeover and it takes one person an hour to perform and another person an hour and a half. That’s 30 minutes of production time lost, compounded across shifts. Plus, with high levels of employee turnover, the knowledge of where each adjustment point is, what tool to use, etc., can easily get lost. With ProAdjust®, we take that responsibility out of the hands of the plant personnel and give them a tool that will do it automatically.

I imagine that’s in very high demand.

MB: It is.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

MB: Robotics provides a competitive edge through repeatability and reliability in areas that manual labor just cannot match. Our goal is to provide the solution and support so our customers can maintain that edge.

Thank you very much, Mike!

MB: Thank you.

To learn more, visit Schneider Packaging Equipment Co.’s website.