Automation & robotics dominated Pack Expo International 2022

As soon as I stepped into McCormick Place in Chicago last week for Pack Expo International, the song “Mr. Roboto” popped into my head and stayed there for the duration of the show because automation and robotics were certainly the focal points of this year’s show, the first Pack Expo International (PEI) to take place since 2018. (An odd coincidence — Stynx played at the ‘Pack Gives Back’ party on the second night of Pack Expo!)

While the use of robots and cobots is nothing new, widespread disruption to production lines during the pandemic and subsequent disruption to supply chains together with labour shortages are driving consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to adopt automated solutions. A new report, The Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing, which was released during PEI (23-26 October) by show organiser PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, highlights how CPGs are looking to enhance and optimise their production, storage, and distribution processes using automated solutions including automated guided vehicles, industrial robots, collaborative robots, and mobile robots, with some of these technologies being supported by artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced vision tools.

According to the report, e-commerce is fueling the automation trend, moving companies toward more responsive modes of distribution such as direct-to-customer, disrupting traditionally highly manual warehousing formats, and in some cases eliminating the need for warehousing.

Additionally, supply chain problems are impacting the availability and cost of raw materials and parts for packaging machinery. More than 90% of CPGs [in the report] say these problems are either extremely impactful or somewhat impactful and while most companies expect them to be resolved over the short term (within three years) at least 25% of companies anticipate them persisting over a longer time span, per the report.

Furthermore, 60% of companies [in the report] say that labour shortages are extremely impactful on their packaging and processing operations, pushing CPGs toward automation, and increasing the importance of developing a skilled workforce.

“The labour shortage is a significant problem, so the question is how to use technology to compensate for a reduced workforce,” said Jorge Izquierdo, vice president, market development, PMMI, during a conversation at PEI. “The challenge [for equipment manufacturers] is to provide machinery that can be operated by fewer people [often one person] but that also maintains high speeds and volume.” He added, however, that the key is making training accessible and employee retention.

The potential for automation and robotics to reduce the reliance on personnel and accommodate lower skilled workers was cited in the report, as was the possibility of reducing the amount of monotonous and less rewarding work that must be done manually. Common sentiments from PEI exhibitors regarding the use of automation included that it can reduce the ‘drudgery type work’ and it can replace labour so employees can be moved to more complex jobs.

At PEI in Universal Robots’ (UR) booth, Robotiq was demonstrating a palletising solution deployed with a UR20 cobot arm. Ryan Weaver, vice president, commercial at Robotiq said that robotic automation is very flexible as the machines can easily be changed from filling boxes to loading boxes onto pallets. “Automated palletising replaces manual palletising, which can help with labour shortages,” he said, adding, “it also helps to retain quality labour [employees] so they may be deployed to areas where their skills are better served.”

The roles of automation technologies are expanding in the packaging and processing industry as they are a strong strategy to help cut costs, improve productivity, and reduce dependency on personnel as skills and retention problems continue to plague companies.

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