"The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment."
~Warren G. Bennis
Well, not quite. At least, not yet. But, automation is certainly the watchword as today’s manufacturers face razor-thin profit margins, Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing and ISO-9002/QS-1000 quality standards. In fact, companies must automate in order to deliver what today’s customer is demanding, when he wants it and at the price he wants to pay.
Let’s start by taking a look at the reasons why manufacturers automate their packaging operations in the first place. Then, we’ll explore some of the tools that help them do it.
Labor — The availability and quality of a reliable talent pool is one of the most important business drivers in any industry. So, management must get the most out of the people they do have. Automation allows companies to reassign human resources to more productive areas such as quality control, customer service or product design. And, while workers are sometimes concerned that machines will "replace" them (not usually true), automated systems can let companies allow employee attrition to take its natural course, without sacrificing productivity.
Throughput Demands — There’s an old saying among plant managers, "Machines don’t take coffee breaks." Sure, there is downtime such as scheduled maintenance or occasional rebuilds/refurbs, but automated systems can be counted on to produce given amounts of throughput in given amounts of time — every day. And, that means the world to companies who must compete in a world of demanding customers, tight quality standards and JIT inventories.
Consistency — A trained and motivated worker is a prized asset to any company. But, even the best human worker has the occasional "bad day." And, "bad day" can easily translate into "massive product recall." Automated systems, properly set-up and maintained, will put the right label in the right place on the right box, every single time.
Real Estate — It’s expensive. Expansion and success is a two-edged blade. Sure, it means more revenue and, hopefully, profits. But, it also means new investment in people, property and equipment. The old manufacturing rule of thumb was that if you increased business 20%, you’d need 20% more people to get the job done. Many times, the growing company finds that it simply can no longer fit more people (or equipment) into the same building. Automation can help avoid an expensive call to the real estate agent.
The demands are complex. Fortunately, there is no shortage of automated packaging tools to meet them. Here are a few that we think add a lot of value — and are within the reach of even moderately sized operations.
Automated Case Sealers/Erectors — These units take a flat box, form it, seal the bottom and present it for loading. This offers three main advantages. First, less people are necessary to perform this menial task. Second, they eliminate an ergonomically undesirable process. And third, they present each box only moments before it is needed, rather than the alternative — paying for both a laborer to form a shift’s worth of boxes ahead of time and the wasted plant capacity used to store empty boxes. (See an example)
Automatic Stretch Wrappers — The strength of stretch wrap comes not from the volume used, but from maximizing "material memory" by stretching the wrap to within a few foot-pounds of its breaking strength. Stretch wrappers use exactly the amount needed and wrap to a standard tension, every time. As a rule, any operation that needs to wrap 15 or more pallets each day can see a cost-benefit from automated stretch wrapping systems. (See an example)
Automatic Strapping/ Unitizing — Many manufacturing and distribution operations can benefit from automated strapping equipment in their UPS shipping operations. These systems pay for themselves on a simple premise. It’s a lot cheaper to ship one 20-pound package than it is to ship four 5-pound packages to the same place. These units automatically gather and strap similar packages going to shared destinations. (See an example)
A Note On Leasing — With new technologies being introduced all the time, more companies are turning to leasing as a tool to stay ahead of the curve and conserve capital. Monthly or other periodic payments ranging from six to 72 months allow for simplified budgeting, avoiding complicated depreciation schedules. Payments can finance not only the purchase price, but other costs such as freight, installation, training and maintenance support. Many leases also allow equipment upgrades during the lease, as technology advances or as your needs grow.
The decision to automate any process comes down to a combination of quality, safety, ergonomic and cost-benefit analysis. But, while automation was once the bastion of only giant corporations, new systems and designs are attractive to even the smallest operations. So, check it out — your profit margin could depend on it.
Neal Magaziner is Executive Vice President of Hughes Enterprises, a leading distributor of packaging, labeling, product identification and other automated machinery and related supplies located in Trenton, NJ. More information on the company and the tools presented in this article can be found by clicking on the “See an Example” links above or by visiting www.hughesent.com.