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Sometimes just an afterthought, at least in the past, packaging has quickly become a priority in distribution. There are a few different reasons for this, all creating a perfect storm of innovation. Customers want to see better and more sustainable packaging. Ecommerce and direct-to-consumer retail have accelerated, thanks to an increased need for contactless transactions. Furthermore, costs have gone up, and both manufacturers and distributors are looking for new ways to save.

Of course, existing issues with a packaging system compound on top of all that, which may or may not introduce a need to revamp processes. It’s driving many industries — distribution included — to move towards full-scale automation. And looking at those changes, it makes sense why manufacturing and distribution opportunities would be headed for change. There’s a talent shortage to consider, too! By 2030, we may be looking at 2 to 3 million manufacturing jobs available, which remain vacant.

Even so, automated solutions are never perfect. What are some reliable ways to improve your automated packaging? What should you be focusing on?

1. Create an Exception Plan

In a perfect world, automation would continue indefinitely, but that’s not going to happen. There will be hiccups, and production will need to pause or stop for a while. The problem is not the stoppage itself, but not having a plan in place for when it does happen. There should be an established protocol for how to proceed when something comes up, with various contingencies for things that can and do happen.

What should your maintenance crews or workers do first? Who do they contact? Can they continue while the system is down? How long will it take to get things up and running again? What’s more, tasks like incomplete orders, unscannable codes or labels, damaged packaging, and mechanical stoppages will need to have an appropriate response, solution, and contingency. Planning for those major disruptions can mean the difference between a few minutes to half a day of downtime, or much more.

2. Speed Up the System

Before getting into the meat of this method, it’s important to point out that safety and reliability should be the priority. As you speed up the system, if either of those elements are compromised, a downturn might be in order.

However, it’s likely your automated packaging system is not optimized for time and output unless that was explicitly your focus when deploying the technology. It may be possible to speed up the entire system, even just slightly, to vastly improve efficiency and performance. You can also make some smart adjustments to speed up the entire operation — like moving slower processes to the end of the production line.

The idea is to consider full operating speed when revamping the system. You might also consider retooling smaller processes or eliminating them completely whenever applicable. Outfitting machinery with leak detection devices, that send real-time alerts when there’s a potential issue, could empower preventive maintenance. Imagine heading a potential malfunction off, before there’s a shutdown or stoppage?

3. Consider the Small Things

What are some smaller improvements you can make to the system that will provide incremental benefits? For example, maybe the cutting machine you’re using could do with a materials upgrade? Swapping to a high-carbon steel or solid carbide blade — which is incredibly strong because it's made of tungsten carbide — might be a great idea. Or, maybe a new cushioning material would be easier to pack and stow?

Thinking about the smaller steps in the operation can also bring additional improvements like cost reductions, higher output, and so on. It really just depends on what’s happening and what kinds of upgrades you can make.

4. Increase Magazine Size

The goal of an automation system is to, well, automate, as much as possible! Try eliminating the need for manual intervention by increasing the size of your consumable magazines. Some examples of consumables include tape, boxes, labels, and more. In your system, where those items are used, ensure there’s a large enough supply for the production line to continue unfettered.

You wouldn’t think so, but every pause to refill those magazines means less time the system is running, and therefore much less output. It adds up over time. So, reducing the time spent on refilling magazines also creates a more consistent workflow. Improperly sized magazines are one of the major pitfalls of automated packaging lines, so don’t overlook it!

5. Reduce Third Parties

Certain types of equipment are too expensive to purchase outright or develop in-house, in which case many organizations turn to third-party providers. Leasing and machines-as-a-service are reliable choices when you just don’t have the resources to acquire what you need outright. However, it should not be relied on often, or frequently. In other words, if this is something that is utilized, it should be done as sparingly as possible, only for major pieces of equipment that are near impossible to acquire otherwise or aren’t needed year-round.

Why? Because the more third-party equipment that’s available, the more likely you’ll need support from those external teams. The goal should be to reduce dependencies as much as possible, especially with automated systems. If and when you do rely on a third party, ensure the contract specifies service and maintenance times, addressing a prompt response.

6. Collect Feedback

Even a fully automated network will have some manual laborers nearby, either tinkering with smaller tasks or monitoring what’s happening. Don’t ignore these people! Collect their feedback and see if they can offer suggestions for improvements or change. They’re on the frontlines working closely with the equipment and technologies, so they have a good idea of what’s possible and what’s not. They may even suggest something that never crossed your mind.

It’s also important to continue collecting that feedback, rather than making it a one-time event. As you implement new solutions, they will have advice, suggestions, and concerns to share, so take advantage of that.

7. Don’t Invest Blindly

It’s easy to get excited about automation, especially when it offers a host of benefits like increased output, lower operating costs, better product and service quality, and much more. But that doesn’t mean you should automate the entire operation from head to foot, right away. You’ll want to take it slowly and automate a few processes at a time. That also ensures you’re not investing blindly in automation solutions and equipment “just because.”

An automated packaging system takes a certain finesse, and optimizing newly implemented processes can be an art. By rushing the entire rollout, you and your team may be missing things, like areas that can be optimized, better equipment opportunities, and smarter processes overall. Start by figuring out what needs automation the most, and what will provide the greatest benefits, and then work your way down the line.

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