Within beverage operations, the case packing operation has been a focal point for measuring the “salable cases produced.” In other words, an important statistic for determining productivity. The case material could have been wood, board or plastic, and was usually sized to contain two dozen containers of variable quantities to create a standard 24/12 case.
The operation involved simply placing containers into a case, with partitions or with units of six or eight containers. Called a drop packer, the machine fed containers through a patterned grid into an empty case. Advanced equipment provided producers with a variety of packing methods: continuous packing, vertical rotating and robotic machines using fingers lifting individual containers en masse into the case.
But, as constant change syndrome (CCS) becomes reality, the packing operation has evolved well beyond the 24/12 case into numerous line configurations driven primarily by the SKU explosion.
The focus is on the case itself. Beverage cases still exist but with designs that are limited in content dependent on the number and size of container. Wooden cases are almost obsolete; plastic has become practical and economical; and board is used under special marketing conditions.
Although six- and eight-packs might have initially used for packaging cans, the cases switched to board or plastic trays using a tray making or a robotic machine. Use of trays still required an operator to attend the machine like a case packer with the same skill level.
The ultimate focus, however, is to minimize or even eliminate case packing operations per se. Complete elimination of case packing as traditionally known throughout the beverage arena will probably endure for some time. However, CCS and SKUs already have revealed packaging configurations have dramatically impacted the “case packing operation” as well as the line layout and content.
The “case” demise has evolved for many years — even though cases each hour is a real measure. Apart from packer technology advancements, packaging changes have developed into “units” formed on the line, which in many situations eliminates the need for a case. One of first applications was shrink wrapping, which formed units of six, eight or more containers not requiring a case.
The can example, with six or eight containers bound with plastic are unitized into a tray. As can sizes change, the unit can be produced in board wrap or plastic with as high as 12 containers. The potential is endless.
As these unitized packages are developed without being placed in a case packer, the conveyor used to move along the line must be able to handle the type of unit involved. Because units rather than containers are moving along the conveyor, line speeds also are impacted to prevent damage and line breakdowns.
Unitized packaging makes the final step on the line a critical operation. Most palletizing operations are programmed to accept various case patterns. Because most unitized packages vary in size, the palletizing operation must have the capability to accept the package and form the correct pattern.
In one final point, without a case packer and a method to count salable cases, how will there be a reconciliation of production quantities? Perhaps the right answer is that there is no standard case.