Automation has long been hailed as the future of manufacturing. In many ways, the future is now. Automation software, equipment, and systems are now widely used in a broad range of manufacturing activities, from design to assembly and even to packaging.
It’s commonly assumed that more automation is always better. After all, increased automation in your process usually leads to reduced labor costs, quality defects, and other inefficiencies. Surely a fully automated process is always the preferable option.
Not necessarily. There may also be good reasons to limit the amount of automation you introduce into your process. That’s especially true when it comes to packaging. At Deufol, we’ve helped many manufacturers across a wide range of industries implement automated packaging systems. Sometimes full automation is the right solution. In other instances, a semi-automated approach is more appropriate.
Not sure which approach is right for your packaging process? Below is information on each option, along with tips on how you can choose the right strategy for your needs. There’s a strong chance that your packaging can benefit from automation in some capacity. The question is just how much automation is right for you.
A fully automated packaging process is one that requires little or no human involvement. Fully-automated systems usually include a mix of software, conveyors, robotics, and other types of equipment. All equipment is usually programmable and easily-managed through software or other technology, limiting the need for employees in the process.
There are some clear benefits to a fully-automated approach. One is the savings you realize on labor costs. Clearly, reduced human involvement means a reduced need for employees, which could save you on wages, hiring and training costs, benefits, and much more.
Another appealing aspect of full automation is increased consistency with regard to quality. Automated systems can often be programmed to meet tight specifications, which means every package can be produced and implemented in a consistent manner. While human employees can also manufacture high-quality products, they can also introduce the possibility for human error and inconsistency.
Fully-automated solutions are often best suited for processes in which the product and packaging don’t vary. You realize the benefits of full automation when you can simply implement the system and let it go to work. If you frequently change your processes, designs, and needs, a fully-automated process may not be the most efficient approach.
A semi-automated approach is one that blends employees with equipment. You use conveyors or robotics for high-volume, low-skill tasks, but also leverage employees for tasks that require thought and innovation.
For example, you could use robotics to pick product from a shelf, but leave the actual packaging to an employee. Or a conveyor system could be used to package the product, but employees may apply variations to the packaging based on specific customer needs. There are many variations of a semi-automated approach, as it is designed and implemented custom to your objectives.
A semi-automated approach may not deliver the labor cost savings and increased consistency that you see with full automation. However, a semi-automated approach is usually more efficient than a process with no automation.
A semi-automated approach could also offer benefits that you wouldn’t see with full automation. Primarily, a semi-automated process allows you to take advantage of human creativity, innovation, and problem solving.
For instance, your packaging may be fluid based on the needs of your customers. Or you may be committed to a Kaizen approach that emphasizes continuous improvement. With a semi-automated process, you have employees involved, so they can identify opportunities improve your system. They can also spot potential issues with the automation and take action before the issue becomes a major problem.
Finally, a semi-automated approach could be appealing if you’re dealing with capital restraints. It can be costly to install robotics and equipment for a fully-automated system. You may not have the capital needed to fund that installation. Instead, a semi-automated process could help you realize greater efficiency while also preserving capital.
Perhaps you’re not sure whether full automation or semi-automation is right for you. It’s especially hard to commit to a packaging process when your needs could change in the future. For instance, you may be launching a new product that will have low volume initially, but has the potential to scale quickly. A fully automated system would be most cost-efficient once the volume increases, but it could also create capital challenges upfront.
At Deufol, we understand these concerns. That’s why we offer progressive automation services. We start with a process that relies heavily on manual packaging while volume is still relatively low. Then, as volume scales, we begin to incorporate automated elements.
A progressive approach is customized for your specific needs. This type of strategy allows you to avoid substantial upfront capital investments and only add automation as you need it. Your packaging process grows with you sales and production volume.
Questions to Ask About Your Process
The decision about how much automation to use should start with your own needs and goals. Think about what you want to accomplish and what challenges are preventing you from reaching your objectives. Below are a few questions to ask as you analyze your options:
- How complex is your packaging? Fully-automated systems are often most effective with packaging that is simple, repetitive, and straightforward. Think candy bars that simply need a wrapper applied. If your packaging is complex or has a high-degree of variation, you may be better served by a semi-automated approach.
- What can your facility accommodate? Fully-automated systems often require a great deal of space. Conveyors and other equipment can be sizable. They may also require ancillary equipment, like generators, servers, and more. Consider your facility needs before committing to an automation approach.
- What are the financial concerns? Automation usually leads to cost-efficiency, especially with regard to labor costs. However, as mentioned, automation often requires capital. What’s more important to you - capital preservation today or cost savings in the future? Look for an approach that aligns with your goals.
- Can you support and maintain the system? Issues and errors are an accepted part of life with any form of technology. Things happen. Machinery breaks down. Software becomes glitchy. Updates and upgrades cause unexpected issues. Even with a fully-automated system, you will need to execute regular maintenance checks, updates, employee training, and much more. Do you have the team in place to handle those activities? Or can you hire a third-party to manage support and maintenance?
- Are your expectations realistic? Automation can boost efficiency and profitability, but it isn’t a solution to every business challenge you face. Consider whether your planned solution will truly have the benefits that you expect and make sure the probably outcome is worth the cost. A packager who has experience with automation can help you review your expectations.
If you haven’t yet implemented automation into your packaging process, now may be the time to do so. It could boost your quality, efficiency, and margins. However, before you jump right in with a fully-automated system, consider how much automation you really need. A packaging consultant who is experienced with automated solutions can help you choose the right strategy.