Just one mistake on your automated packaging line can slow the whole operation down or even bring it to a halt. Here’s how to keep that from happening.
The process of packaging and shipping an order is one that happens in a pre-defined sequence of events. When any sort of automation is involved, an additional factor comes into play: success will depend on just how well the equipment in the process is integrated. And that means getting each of the machines—carton erectors, shrink wrappers, void fillers, labelers, document inserters, carton sealers, conveyors, and the like—to do its job at the right time and at the right speed.
So, what would happen if you weren’t able to achieve that perfect synchronization on your packaging line? At the very least, backlogs and equipment jams could develop; at worst, the line might stop altogether.
Because that can be disastrous for your operation, here are some tips for avoiding 10 common packaging line mishaps.
1. Keep your supplier in the loop. The quickest and fast way to bring your packaging line to a stop is to run out of any of the consumable materials you need and that you purchase from suppliers. Typically, that shouldn’t be an issue on a regular day, but what if you launch a new product or experience a significant bump in sales? Do you know if your suppliers can handle the additional demand? Make sure you are having regular communication and are sharing forecasts with you suppliers; this will help both sides of the transaction avoid surprises. Even better, some packaging experts recommend buying strategically from multiple suppliers to ensure the availability of materials.
2. Inspect before you accept. In a high volume packaging line, the last thing you want is for defective packaging materials, like misprinted cartons or easily smudgeable labels, to be put into the production line. You may not find out there’s a problem until orders make it part way through the line and if a supplier can’t immediately deliver replacements, you might have to shut down the line temporarily. Make sure that you have a formal protocol for inspecting all incoming shipments of packaging supplies and ensuring that all are up to standard; this will help prevent potential work stoppages for defective packaging products.
3. Minimize refilling of consumables. The more often you have to refill supplies like label stock, liquids, glue, tape, and the like, the more often you’ll have to slow down or stop a line, or take an employee away from a workstation to refill them. Look for a machine that has the largest magazine or reservoir possible that also makes sense for the needs of your facility. Yes, it will add cost upfront, but smaller magazines and reservoirs can negatively affect uptime, meaning you are producing less and, thus, making less money. And if a piece of equipment depends on the operator to notice when it needs a refill then a larger container requiring fewer refills will reduce the opportunity for the operator to miss the signal and wait too long to replenish supplies.
4. Build in redundancy. Automated packaging equipment is expensive, so you may be reluctant to keep spare equipment. But what if a critical piece of machinery goes down? Honestly, the money lost on the resulting delays could be far more expensive than the price of the spare piece of equipment. But that doesn’t include every machine: those aspects that could not be handled manually is a candidate for backup. For example, if a case sealer stopped working, you could tape by hand, even though it would be much slower. But, if a label printer was not working, you could not replace that with manual labor. The extra machine can keep the line moving while the other is undergoing maintenance or consumables are being refilled.
5. Keep it simple. Using overly complex packaging that requires a lot of folding and forming in the line can really slow things down. If you need customized protection, consider using a system like foam in place that can be easily formed for each package without the time consuming aspect of many different hands being involved.
6. Take operating speed into consideration. Each piece of equipment requires a different amount of time to complete its task. To prevent slower machines from compromising productivity, position them farther down the line if you can.
7. Pay attention to pacing. If bottlenecks develop on a partially automated line, it could be because the pace at which operators are working is not well matched to the flow and speed of the equipment. For example, you could have eight people working on a line, but if one has a four minute task and another has a two minute task, that’s where the bottleneck will occur. Consider using lean techniques like those used to manage manufacturing production lines to help prevent issues with bottlenecks and pace-based jams.
8. Make sure your machines are handing off correctly. If the integration of equipment, software, and control systems is not done properly, an order’s progress through the packaging line will be rough. At every juncture there will be an electronic hand-off, in which the next piece of equipment is to take over. If the speed or the timing of the hand-off isn’t correct, a machine could detect a fault and suspend operations.
9. Plan for exceptions. In an automated packaging system, errors may be rare, but they do happen. And if you aren’t prepared for handling them, the line will end up slowing or stopping every time there’s an problem, no matter how small it might be. Ideally, you want a way to resolve problems and get the package back on the automated line with the least amount of disruption and the fewest touches. Working with your equipment manufacturer or an experienced distributor can help you come up with the solution that will best work for your facility.
10. Design for tomorrow, not just for today. If your packaging line has no flexibility built into it, you’re likely to encounter slowdowns when any change comes along. Equipment that can accommodate changes in box size, graphics, labeling, and other attributes will keep things moving without lengthy shutdowns. Make sure you’re informed about new products in development, special promotions, and issues like theft prevention and entry into new markets that could prompt changes in packaging. It’s a mistake to design for what’s happening now and not for where you need to be tomorrow.
It’s time to think about the big picture.
One last, important piece of advice is not so much about avoiding a major packaging catastrophe but about changing the way you think about automation. Think of your a packaging line as a single, integrated entity, rather than as a collection of individual pieces of equipment. Automated packaging lines are not just the sum of their individual machines. Together, they become an entire machine in themselves.