Smarter packaging rooms start with ‘start’

By Lisa McTigue Pierce in Optimization on March 28, 2014

As packaging machine control evolves, packaging engineers are able to create more cohesive, smoother running packaging lines that are also more efficient.

Jeff Harrow, senior consultant at Matrix Technologies Inc., outlines the benefits packaging production operations can experience when they embrace open control systems, such as PackML. Matrix Technologies Inc. is CSIA Certified control system integrator. The Control System Integrators Assn. (CSIA) is a global non-profit professional association that seeks to advance the industry of control system integration for the success of members and their clients.

Harrow leads a team of experts in machine control, and MES (manufacturing execution systems) and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems to create standardized, reproducible control solutions for complex packaging processes. With more than 20 years of experience integrating high-speed packaging equipment for Fortune 500 clients in the food, beverage and consumer products industries, Harrow’s focus extends beyond the plant floor, developing powerful reporting and decision‑making tools for Operations Management. Contact him at


Q: What is the main trend in controls for packaging automation, and how is it affecting/improving packaging operations?

Harrow: When discussing the future of high-speed, high-volume packaging rooms, it can be beneficial to understand where it started. Historically, packaging rooms have merely been a collection of highly specialized, though sometimes disparate, pieces of OEM equipment, each being controlled by a proprietary control system. These proprietary control systems are sometimes referred to as “Black-Box Systems” in that they are seldom accessible or manageable by the end user or the end user’s System Integrator (SI).

There is usually limited interfacing between these specialized machines, and it generally only consists of “Running” or “Not Running” interlocks that are implemented through hardwired I/O points between the machines, thus providing a simple cascaded startup and shutdown.

Our clients, consisting mainly of end users, are starting to move toward creating “smarter” packaging rooms. One step in achieving these smarter rooms is to demand more open control systems from the OEM equipment suppliers to make their packaging rooms more fluid and efficient.

This openness in these OEM-supplied systems is crucial to being able to integrate the equipment within a packaging room to a level in which a real-time model can be developed. Our clients are then leaning more heavily on their SIs or OEMs to provide an overall supervisory control architecture. This supervisory architecture should not be thought of as a separate controls hardware level, but more of a ground-up design methodology that provides both control and reporting at the procedural level of the standard PackML model.

These supervisory control architectures can then be tasked with everything from overall packaging room coordination to product flow control to real-time process scheduling based on available packaging equipment and assets—all the way through to direct and seamless integration into the plant and MES and SCADA systems. This level of control can provide the end users with a real‑time and dynamic model of their packaging rooms and, subsequently, provide overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) measures. These OEEs are a measure of availability, performance and quality for each component within the room, as well as for each packaging line within the room.


Q: What are the challenges of implementing this trend?

Harrow: There are numerous challenges associated with the implementation of these smarter packaging rooms:

• The initial cost can be a major hurdle, and can be hard to justify.

• Even though the PackML standard is a mature standard, there are limited examples of complete implementations of it across an entire packaging room; therefore, success stories showcasing the potential benefits of going forward with the initial investment are few and limited.

• Smaller-volume end users do not always have the capital to make such investments and/or the internal resources to analyze and fully benefit from the increased amount and finer resolution of packaging room operational data.

• Providing reporting information for all tightly integrated systems is inherently more complex than simple isolated machines cascaded together. It can sometimes be a challenge to find end users with enough foresight and vision to realize that the added benefits far outweigh the added complexity created in their packaging rooms.

• During some recent attempts at creating smart packaging rooms, end users will use a single OEM to provide all the equipment hoping for a smooth and seamless implementation, but fall short on specifying the final acceptance criteria. The result is an OEM being contractually held to acceptance criteria based on the performance of the individual equipment and not the packaging room as a whole. As a result, the overall control system may be tilted to make each individual machine run optimally and not necessarily make the entire packaging room run optimally. In the end, the OEM may provide an overall system that has all the characteristics of a well-designed PackML system, but underperforms because they were strapped to the machine-based performance criteria. Also, the additional benefits of providing real-time data back upstream to the process side as well as to the MES and SCADA systems may be completely overlooked. Identifying and specifying a complete packaging room solution and, ultimately, implementing that solution is not a trivial matter. And having the insight of an experienced packaging integrator working with end users and OEMs can sometimes make the difference in realizing a completely integrated packaging room solution.


Q: How can those challenges be overcome?

Harrow: Experienced packaging integrators realize that the development of a complete packaging room solution starts with extensive stakeholder engagement to identify and account for system requirements that extend well beyond the individual machine level—to include plant floor production requirements as well as informational requirements for operations management and future capital planning.

By insuring everyone involved is aware of what the true key performance indicators (KPIs) are for determining a successful capital investment—and including the reporting of these KPIs into the base system specifications—it is possible to specify systems that, in essence, document their own return on investment (ROI). This will also allow the packaging teams to celebrate their successes, as well as build on them through future capital investments. When correctly designed and implemented using an established set of standards, these successful packaging solutions can be easily replicated across the entire supply chain, thus reducing the cost of future implementations.


Q: What are the benefits to packaging operations that embrace this change?

Harrow: One benefit this trend toward smarter packaging rooms for packaging operations is the ability to provide the supply chain with a clear and precise understanding of their operational capabilities. They are better positioned to commit to and deliver on the changing demands of the overall business model. This will allow for more timely and accurate supply responses.

Also, in the event yield and capacity suffer on a given packaging line, the root causes are no longer subjective. The ability to determine a true and accurate OEE for all the equipment encompassed by the packaging room and the ability to pass that information through the correct model provides the end users with the objective data needed to identify and address bottlenecks, as well as accurately estimate potential returns associated with overcoming these bottlenecks. Providing this data is part of the overall packaging solution and provides packaging operations with a more focused and objective approach to continuous improvements and capital investments.

Another benefit is the ability to feed accurate, real-time data back to the upstream process, which can be a tremendous asset, especially when a process can dynamically react to what particular packaging lines are under- or over-utilized.

There is also the ability to feed this information up through MES and SCADA systems, as to particular packaging formats that may be a struggle at any given time. This same information can also be passed to sales and customer service to make the sales and backorder processes more efficient.

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