Like all segments within food and beverage manufacturing, the dairy industry finds itself facing a shrinking labor force. As a result, all phases of the production process – including packaging – are becoming increasingly automated, leading many in the industry to realize they need to change the way they approach their operational strategies.
“Due to the fluid nature of the workforce and difficulty keeping good employees, we recognize that training is often no longer the solution,” said Don Maxwell, Midwest regional sales manager for Chicago-based Triangle Packaging Machinery Company. “Triangle is working towards a simple, intuitive machine like your smart phone that anyone can operate. Our goal is to make it a machine that anyone can run.”
Cost pressures also are leading to increased automation, as companies seek to mitigate increases in direct input costs, energy, freight and labor, according to John Kearny, marketing director for dairy with Amcor.
“We are, as an industry, experiencing an acceleration of automation activities and projects that span across the entire dairy and cheese value stream, from milking to cheese production, processing, packaging and even freight companies are finding new ways to leverage automation,” Kearny said. “COVID and post-COVID impacts on labor availability have highlighted inefficiencies and pain points within the overall food industry.”
He said automation is a key component not only for optimizing the current work force, but also providing significant opportunities to drive out cost and enhance profitability by driving manufacturing efficiencies.
Given this background, Wendel Santos, manager of automation engineering at Tetra Pak, said a combination of new technologies like the cloud, data analytics and artificial intelligence will enable the dairy industry to move forward.
Tetra Pak has seen increased concerns from customers about the quality of products and the rising cost of production, Santos said. To answer these concerns, the company uses different technologies to collect data and convert that into information to inform actions and improve the quality of products. This reduces total production costs, and automation is essential in that process.
“The data generated with all the different operations linked together helps streamline production and improve the efficiency of the production floor,” said Jeff Hopp, director of marketing for food with Milton, Wis.-based Charter Next Generation. “Furthermore, the product quality, consistency and safety are improved by automation within a facility.”
Packaging systems have been integrated into overall automation as a way of making the entire process seamless.
“Product flow into the infeed system can be aligned with the output from the upstream operation,” Hopp said. “Furthermore, the technology used in the packaging film itself has enabled packaging machines to improve their output speeds, maximize the barrier/shelf-life of the packaged product and maintain consumer acceptance.”
Automated packaging systems have also helped the company provide customers with improvements in efficiency and product consistency, Hopp said. Specifically, he said the consistent gauge or thickness of the film helps customers improve their production efficiency, product quality and reduce waste. This results in material that runs well through the automated equipment.
Additionally, Hopp said having consistent material running through the machine eliminates the need for employees to open the machine to reset film or machine parameters, and this minimizes opportunities for a worker to be injured on the job
One of the greatest needs in packaging cheese is verifying seal integrity so that a producer is confident all packages leaving the plant are sealed for a fresh, high-quality product, Maxwell said. To aid in this goal, Maxwell said Triangle’s ultrasonic sealing systems provide 100% seal verification at the VFFS bagger without the need for human intervention or the addition of trace gases.
Maxwell said one of Triangle’s long-term customers said they need machines that run themselves, because training is no longer the solution. So Triangle developed equipment with simplified user interfaces and more automated processes, and the company plans to soon launch an auto changeover bagger.
Maxwell said it has been challenging to produce auto changeover baggers, but the company redefined a changeover, allowing it to simplify and automate much of the process.
“During the few remaining manual steps, such as changing out the forming tube, Triangle has developed an intuitive ‘wizard’ that can guide even the most untrained operator through to the goal of the perfect, repeatable changeover,” Maxwell said. “The goal is to go from run to run without the typical ramp up period that is often needed to reach maximum production.”
The innovation is not the company’s first in auto-changeover, as it launched a cartoner four years ago with the feature.
In other areas of automation, Kearny said the use of robotics for loading and pack-off of product continues to expand across the business. Amcor has seen growth across its shrink rollstock automation solutions, which are offered in combinations with equipment solutions from industry partners to optimize labor and eliminate labor-intensive, costly pre-made shrink bags.
Hopp said automation in dairy packaging allows for the use of real time data to minimize the amount of downtime, rework and product loss processors have to deal with.
“As a result, the product is placed into a package more frequently versus having the product diverted to a rework station before being placed in a package,” Hopp said. “Packaging the product immediately eliminates the opportunity for the product to degrade due to oxygen exposure, excessive moisture loss or microorganisms. Automation can slow or stop a production line if there is an issue detected.”
Preventing product loss is one aspect of improving sustainability in the manufacturing process, but there are other factors that need to be considered as well.
“Automation systems can help improve sustainability by enabling a company like Charter Next Generation to produce packaging films that use less material due to the computer systems on the production lines,” Hopp said. “The film tolerance can be tightly controlled to minimize the amount of packaging material used to manufacture the product. Similarly, these same systems can be used to extrude sustainable packaging films that contain post-consumer recycled resins and compostable resins.”
The cost of these automated systems can be a barrier for some companies, but that could change in the future with further innovation.
For example, Amcor’s Form-Tite and Flow-Tite Shrink Rollstock reportedly lowers labor costs by 50% or more. Shrink rollstock films in conjunction with shrink machinery deliver an overall cost reduction by optimizing productivity while maintaining advanced protection.
“If automation solution developers are able to deliver cost effective solutions and products that are within reach of more small and medium processors, we could also see more competition in the marketplace as automation can level the playing field from a cost perspective,” Kearny said.