In the children’s board game Thin Ice, players continue to load marbles onto tissue paper, hoping not to be the one holding the tweezers when the marbles “break the ice.” Although Thin Ice brings about joviality when the marbles finally break through the tissue paper, in the beverage market, having packaging that can’t withstand rough handling is a troublesome event. Experts note that as packaging materials have become thinner, material handling equipment is adapting to ensure warehouse operations protect the efficacy of beverages.
“Thinner and more delicate packaging makes automated handling more difficult,” says Michael Castor, offering manager of palletizing at Honeywell Intelligrated, Mason, Ohio. “Traditionally, conventional palletizers use pneumatic bump-turners to selectively turn boxes to match the required pattern. However, with delicate packaging, using these bump-turners can damage the product.”
Castor adds that innovations have been added to palletizing systems that help protect the efficacy of the products.
“For these situations we have developed a ‘bumpless’ or ‘touchless’ case turner that aligns packages using servo-controlled rollers so that impacts are eliminated and products remain pristine,” he says.
Pierpaolo Mattana, head of sales for beverage BU LPT NAM Division at GEA Group, Düsseldorf, Germany, also highlights the impact that thinner packaging materials is having on palletizing equipment.
“The beverage market is moving more toward a decrease in the environmental impact of primary and secondary packages, resulting, for example, in an increased diffusion of lightweight primary containers or in the elimination of secondary packages,” Mattana says. “Therefore, we see an increased request for technological solutions that allow gentle handling of packages to protect the products and preserve their quality during transportation.”
However, thinner packaging materials is not the only evolution impacting palletizing and depalletizing equipment. Retail-ready and shelf-ready packaging designs have become a growing trend in the fast-moving consumer packaged goods market, including beverages.
“The concept of retail-ready and shelf-ready packaging is that the external packaging of a product is optimized in size and quantity to fit onto a store shelf,” Honeywell Intelligrated’s Castor explains. “Often this packaging becomes a ‘display’ when opened so products are ready to sell almost immediately. This standardization of packaging makes things easier on the manufacturing side because there is less waste and handling operations are more easily mechanized. For both automated palletizing and depalletizing, less variation is always a good thing as it simplifies setup, products run more reliably and rates can be increased.”
Ted Yeigh, sales director for the Palletizer Division at Columbia Machine Inc., Vancouver, Wash., details how these display solutions are designed to create a “billboard” effect within the stores. This results in more display ready cases that require windows or perforations out on all four sides of the loads, he adds.
“Fortunately, Columbia has continued to develop very flexible palletizing solutions to allow for package orienting and very gentle package handling to address these growing trends,” he says.
Yeigh prognosticates that the reduction of packaging materials thickness will continue throughout the beverage market.
“Sustainability through reductions in packaging continues to grow, which is a good thing,” he says. “That can mean smaller package sizes with less protection for the contents. This is good for Columbia as we continue to innovate and develop high speed, gentle handling solutions that the beverage industry has been able to take advantage of.”
Although these display packages offer many benefits for brand owners and retailers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) note that its configurations can be challenging.
“There is an increased susceptibility to damage,” says Tom Swovick, manager of food, beverage and consumer purchased goods market development at Dematic, Grand Rapids, Mich. “Glossy surfaces, perforations and cut-outs, thinner corrugate and in some instances the elimination of dividers have all individually led to greater product damage.”
Although these packaging formats have adjusted how palletizer OEMs approach product development, these material handling machines are helping beverage facilities streamline today’s operations and address growing labor concerns.
“Automation continues to grow and producers are able to take advantage of higher capacity solutions with greater uptime and throughput,” Columbia Machines’ Yeigh says. “It seems the timeframe for payback on an investment in automation is being allowed to be extended with the very real labor shortage.”
Honeywell Intelligrated’s Castor also notes palletizing/depalletizing’s ability to tackle labor challenges.
“Palletizing and depalletizing operations are typically high-turnover jobs that are prone to repetitive strain injuries,” he says. “Implementing an automated palletizing/depalletizing solution directly addresses labor shortages in this area while keeping people safe and available for higher-value tasks.”
Palletizing equipment’s ability to address these challenges stem from the growing adoption of automation throughout warehousing operations.
“I believe the growth of robotics has caused more companies to consider automation,” Castor says. “Fixed automation can be a considerable investment, but it can only be designed with so much flexibility. Robots on the other hand are typically a lower investment but can be reprogrammed as requirements change. Robots are also slower than fixed automation but can still operate faster than a human.
“Palletizing is a prime area for automation because products are generally packed into uniform cartons and are presented on an infeed conveyor (or conveyors) to be stacked,” he continues. “Deploying a robot in this situation is straightforward, achieves return on investment quickly and opens the door to automating other aspects of production.”
Lorenzo Zanettini, product manager of packaging and palletizing at GEA Group, explains that robotics support versatility and production efficiencies. GEA offers a range of palletizing solutions that can reinforce these efficiencies.
“GEA has installed robotics to serve multiple lines and products in the beverage, dairy, pasta and food industries,” he says. “These types of palletizers are best for lines with low rates and provide the best solution in terms of flexibility and cost optimization. The GEA Robotic isles Omnia palletizers are especially suitable for low- and medium-speed lines and when high flexibility is needed thanks to the simultaneous palletization/depalletization feature and fast gripping heads changeover.”
Dematic’s Swovick also highlights the benefits that robotic palletizing systems can supply to a beverage warehouse.
“Robots are more flexible and adaptable than a conventional palletizer,” he says. “Additionally, there are few adjustments necessary on a robot palletizer when compared to a conventional unit. While they embody a high level of technology, it can be argued that robots are easier to operate and most often faster to repair.”
Given these attributes, Swovick anticipates that robotic palletizing systems will play a large role in future operations. As such, he predicts advancements on the horizon for the material handling equipment will be “continued growth in robotics capabilities with multiple robots operating in the same space, ever increasing use (and cost effectiveness) of vision and growth in the use of artificial intelligence (AI),” he says.
Honeywell Intelligrated’s Castor notes that advancements within robotics for palletizers will lead to easier to program solutions, 3-D vision systems, AI and machine learning.
“These advancements make it easier for new companies to start automating and existing companies to automate tasks that were impossible or impractical just a few years ago,” he says. “One area where Honeywell has been making strides is in mixed-SKU depalletizing where boxes can be different sizes and heights. In the future, we hope to utilize this same technology to build mixed SKU pallets and perform more complex, high-variation material handing operations.”