Across the spectrum of the beverage arena, a major prevailing topic has been replacement of manual operational tasks with new or improved technological methods. Questions are designed to help figure out whether your company has the “automated mindset.” To what extent have the various phases of the beverage production process evolved? What is your warehouse’s current status? What are the goals of future projections?

Discussions will focus on some evolution transitions and the potential of designing and operating the ultimate — a totally automated production packaging line. 

It’s always best to start at the beginning, and the approach to total automations begins with Phase I — product processing, and whether the product is a carbonated soft drink (CSD), beer, wine, spirit, juice and/or energy drink, the “are you automated” mindset has existed for many years. In most product processing, ingredient mixing or formulation was, and in some in cases still is, performed manually with methods used since the beginning.  

Yet, the evolution to automation typically has involved graduated tanks, volumetric controlled pumps, and an array of digital equipment that are designed to make inroads in the steps from manual to automated operations. As products and ingredients changed and more SKUs hit store shelves, the need for more accuracy, speed and quality assurance of measuring became a necessity within beverage operations. 

The next step in Phase I was the advent of the computer and equipment advancement in which all tasks became computer programmed so that the packaging line could execute according to time, place and sequence. An excellent example is a totally automated brewhouse, where each step of the process can be followed with diagrams on monitors.      

Within beverage processing, the automation goal probably has been attained; however, whether other segments such as packaged production also will embrace full automation remains to be seen.

In Phase II, packaged production, the evolution to automation has been going on in bits and pieces for many years dictated by constant container, product and package configuration changes. Part of the container issue is the self-manufacture of PET, which became a hybrid — manual versus semi-automatic depending on the installation’s intent.

Container handling in most beverage operations has been a manual task for cans, bottles and closures with some semi-automatic equipment depending on suppliers and volume levels. Wrap and package machines evolved from manual to online changeovers with the same occurrence for labeling machines.   

Package casing has evolved from drop packing to vertical rotary, to integrated case loading. Because of the diversity of package configurations, the case packing area has and will continue to be a challenging task.

With the use of PLC, palletizing cases has become fully automated. As a result, it requires reprogramming as case patterns change. While on the surface this looks good for beverage operations, it can be a future challenge. Because palletizing cases is the end of the production packaging line, how products will be discharged to storage could present a problem if the line is totally automated.

With all the operation stations discussed, it’s apparent that a totally automated package production line is possible. The tasks that have evolved always are subject to change and even regulations over which a producer might have no control could be a detriment to the automated packaging line as intended.

The alternative to a totally automated line could be a line that is automated at each station, but not truly integrated as a unit. Ask yourself — is this a real goal or a true challenge?