Packaging is a natural fit for automation — whether it's in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical, or consumer products markets. However, the current economic downturn could put innovation on a back burner for some. For analysis on how this may relate to the packaging market, we consulted the leader of one company that supplies robots to the packaging industry: John Dulchinos, president and CEO of Adept Technology Inc., Livermore, Calif.

“It's difficult to gauge how the credit crisis will affect our businesses. At the end of the day, robots for packaging typically get purchased as part of relatively large capital investments. So, the degree to which companies become hesitant to make any such investments would have proportionally negative impact on our business. However, the economic downturn has happened so recently, that it's hard to say just how much an effect it will have. The credit crisis aside, we're very bullish on packaging and the need to build automated packaging lines to make companies globally competitive.”

“Why am I bullish on the packaging market? The first reason: Packaging has become very strategic — so it's no longer just a wrapper that manufacturers put around something to protect it on its way to the customer … now, packaging is actually part of the product. Because of that, packaging adds value to the product itself. However, the only way to automate packaging is with flexible systems — so manufacturers can change that package as they change the product. This points to the use of robots as an automated solution.”

“The second reason: In food, pharmaceutical, and certain consumer-goods markets, manufacturers must operate geographically close to where their customers are. Because of that, manufacturers are anchored in markets where labor, liability, and overhead rates continue to increase. So what it takes to put a product into a wrapper, that wrapped item into a carton, that carton into a box, and then that box onto a palette becomes fundamentally more expensive every year. Conversely, the effective cost for robots continue to decrease. (Check out the report Price Index of Industrial Robots published by UNECE and IFR for the exact numbers.) So, it often becomes economical to make robots the primary-use tool for packaging.

Packaging robots have become cheaper in large part because we've made huge reductions in the physical size of electronics — so now, controls use 10% of the space they did 10 years ago. In fact, in certain product lines, controls are actually built into robots, so there's no external control. We can actually build kinematics, servo, and communications controls into the base of our robots.”

A packaging line that conveys thousands of product pieces per minute requires several robots to handle that kind of volume. Designers must decide how many robots are needed, and what pick rates should be used to maximize transfer efficiency. This is called line balancing. Application software can help designers here.

Bird's-eye view: Above, PackXpert runs on a PC to manage a vision-guided, conveyor-tracking pick-and-place robot. Within a couple hours, a designer can calibrate vision, robot, and belt, and build a logic sequence to set the robot to use vision to locate parts, synchronize with the belt, pick up parts, and package them. The software simplifies the process, turning programming (AKA writing software, what it used to take to implement a robot) into configuring software. For more information, visit www.adept.com.

  • The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), Arlington, Va., reports that North American packaging-machinery sales are forecast to grow at 3.1% through 2009. North American manufacturers provide 20% of packaging solutions sold worldwide, and satisfy 77% of domestic demand. Quality assurance and U.S. counterfeit prevention technologies could be spurring this trend.

  • Freedonia Group Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, reports in a September 2008 study that the U.S. sterile medical packaging industry will grow 6.1% annually through 2012; produce packaging will rise 4.2% each year.

  • PACK EXPO International will be held November 9-13, 2008 at McCormick Place in Chicago, Ill.

  • PMMI will hold its Boost Profits by Rethinking Your Packaging Operations conference March 18-19, 2009 in Tampa, Fla.