Case Packing: Traditional or the New Hotness?

December 11, 2006

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Nothing wrong with tradition: painting your face for a football match; handwritten letters; paper newspapers; watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 37 times through the holiday season. Then again, the new hotness definitely has its benefits, too. When it comes to case packing, going robotic or traditional automation is an application-by-application decision.

The decision to install either a robotic case packing system or hard automation case packer should be made on an application-by-application basis, based on the item that needs to be packed, the pack configuration, desired speeds, available facility space, and a company's general equipment ideology.

Finding the best solution requires an analysis of the product, the package, a company's current needs and its potential future needs, according to a recent Pack World white paper from Alexandria, MN-based Brenton Engineering Company.

Says Brenton: "Let the application dictate."

Case style is one of the primary determiners of whether to install a robotic or traditional case packer. A robot lends itself best to top-load pick-and-place applications particularly if the entire case can be loaded at once. A 12-pack of bottles, for example, is an ideal robotic application.

Moveover, flexibility is one of the most important criteria concerning packaging machines.

Robotic solutions can provide notably more flexibility to a packaging operation. Robotic systems facilitate changeover to run multiple products on a single line.

Moreover, space flexibility must be considered. Although a robotic system may have more components and thus require more total square footage, manufacturers can place individual components in various locations to accommodate available space.

However, robotic systems may not be able to yield the speeds of traditional hard automation, as a robotic case packer "tops out at speeds of 30 picks per minute max." For a single-size product, traditional hard automation provides higher speeds and greater efficiency from less flexibility. A company that needs to pack 400 cartons a minute and can only pack one case at a time probably should consider hard automation," Brenton Engineering says.

For instance, consider a food manufacturer that needed to pack macaroni and cheese, "a product that has been around for years in the same size and shape package." The manufacturer benefited significantly from a traditional case packing system.

That manufacturer's hard automation case packing system collates 18-, 24- and 36-count cases using servo-driven in-feeds. After stacking the cartons, it brings them into a servo loading station, pushes them into a wraparound or knockdown case, seals it and then sends it off to palletizing. The system hits speeds of 450 cartons per minute — speeds that a robotic system couldn't achieve.

In the right application and configuration, though, a robotic case packer can pick three or four case loads at a time, "which means 90-120 picks per minute," notes Brenton.

For example, a filtration products manufacturer needed a system to handle 100 stock-keeping units (SKUs) of industrial filters ranging in size from six to 12 inches in height and four to five inches in diameter, and weighing on average two to more than five pounds each. The filters were either bulk or case packed in a nesting pattern that required them to be uniformly stacked to prevent damage to their seams.

According to Brenton:

Those types of requirements would have been impossible for a traditional hard automation system to meet, particularly considering the space confines of the project.

So, going with dual robotic system that integrates a case erector, case packer, case sealer and palletizer provided a successful solution that more than doubled lines speeds to 50 filters per minute

Due to variances in costs, technology depends on the application: a robotic solution might be more costly than hard automation, yet the reverse may be true in other instances.

Either way, this is a long-term investment and should be treated as such. This in mind, a traditional case packer doesn't necessarily lend itself to running a completely different item five years into the future. And while robotic assets, on the other hand, can be redeployed down the road, technology and electronic components continue to advance rapidly.

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