The term “manufacturing flexibility” has become an archive label in today’s fast moving, high tech environment. To approach the subject is a true challenge because flexibility requires many significant factors to be considered when designing and installing packaged production lines in a beverage manufacturing facility. 

A starting point is historic. For years, beverage production packaging lines were designed to handle a specific size, shape, material and type of package like a 6-ounce bottle in a 24-unit wooden case or a 12-ounce can in a 24-unit tray. To relate all the transitions that have evolved would fill volumes; however, it is important to find the root of the flexibility idea and understand why our colleagues in marketing and our demanding customers play such an impacting role. 

The two main factors that affect flexibility are product characteristics and packaging configurations. 

With regard to products, during the evolution, some filling equipment was only capable of running certain kinds of products with set quality specifications and at speeds below standard. In some instances, products had characteristics requiring sanitation flush outs during changeovers, lower speeds and possible alteration to specifications. 

The annual volume of new products into the marketplace and market demand have made the current approach to product/line feasibility a mandatory consideration when redesigning lines or planning new ones.

The packaging factor and its impact on flexibility can become difficult because equipment, tools, devices and packaging materials/configurations might not be possible, or can become very costly. The situation raises a major question and challenge for machine designers and manufacturers ― can we build a machine or a production packaging line that is flexible enough to run the highest percentage of packages currently in the market? 

In real time, the answers to the challenge have progressed as required because of the unscheduled and unpredictable influx of package configurations that demand major design changes and capital outlay that might not have a favorable return on investment. A major concern is whether an entire line can be flexible, or only specific workstation equipment where flexibility is necessary.

Review of existing flexibility applications indicates the evolution is in progress, but generally only as specifically required or in some situations subsidized. Can lines are a good example because the goal is to run 8-, 12- and 16-ounce size cans on the same line with an array of package configurations. Filling, seaming, and packaging devices are the prime candidates for flexibility and what degree it can be reached.

From an operations perspective, manufacturing flexibility will progress to the point of necessity for several reasons. The projection of new product SKUs will not be reduced. Constant packaging changes will always present manufacturing modifications, government regulatory agency updates and restrictions that prevail. The general economy also will dictate the cost of capital spending required by these changes. 

Beverage producer reviews of existing capabilities related to current package mix could help assess the value of consolidation that would lead to minimizing lines and maximizing flexibility to cope with real time.