New challenges for tomorrow’s packaging machines

andrea-barboliniAndrea Barbolini
Application VP Packaging
Schneider Electric Automation Gmbh

The transition from a mechanical process to the mechatronic approach has led to a true sophistication of machines used in the packaging industry. The high degree of complexity makes it now possible to adapt to end-users’ new requirements and gives rise to a new vision about future issues.

The 1990’s marked a radical break in the packaging industry. Packaging machinery manufacturers had to completely reshape their machines in order to support their customers’ needs as regards product innovation. The reason was simple: the mechanical principle which this generation of machines relied on could no longer meet the new production and innovation requirements. Back then, industrials became much more aware that placing new products or enhancements on the market could no longer be supported by the machines available on the market.

The breakthrough of mechatronics

It has thus been necessary to move from mechanics to mechatronics, a multidisciplinary approach involving mechanics as well as electronics and computer science. This technology – which is more relevant than ever – is used to introduce modularity, which was up until then impossible with a purely mechanical system.

The conversion from a mechanics to mechatronics has required machinery manufacturers to radically change their ways of thinking, since modularity requires separating the various modules and integrating software liable to manage independent units. It is also necessary to pre-define the structures, to program, to code without completely eliminating the mechanical aspect. Mechanics remains but its role is greatly reduced.
A fascinating concept for all industrial sectors

For end users, this approach has triggered significant progress. Each industrial sector has drawn advantages. The pharmaceutical sector was the first one to embrace the concept and greatly improved its modularity and flexibility.
The tobacco industry, which immediately followed, was seduced by the possibility to accelerate and increase the production levels. Lastly, the food and beverage industry adopted it since it allowed it to solve problems related to its complex production lines.
Throughout the years, the relevance of the approach has increased: at the beginning of the millenium, the rise in production became one of the manufacturers’ central issues.

It was thus necessary to produce more while remaining flexible and the mechatronic approach has facilitated this transition while also integrating new materials and all types of labeling, including the RFID techniques. ‘Producing more’ has finally led the industry to adopt the principle of an open approach.

Ensuring unfailing security

These last years, new requirements from manufacturers have appeared and, among them, reducing energy consumption. Beyond the will to reduce their electricity consumption, companies are asking for new functionalities that may be used to reduce their raw material consumption, which can be a major cost driver.
Once used to reduce the costs of manual labeling, robotics are also now increasingly used in the packaging industry to replace humans in potentially dangerous tasks. The generalized use of orders on the internet has also given a new life to the industry.

Lastly, there is also a request for increasingly accurate information on these new packaging machines. Manufacturers want to be able to control the efficiency of these machines and of obtaining further diagnostics on the working condition of each module. For us, as suppliers of automation techniques, this means that we should be capable of ensuring consistent security on these highly sophisticated machines. This issue will probably remain one of our main challenges within the next few years.

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