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8 impressive developments in packaging automation

8 impressive developments in packaging automation
John Henry is keeping an eye out for you.

Packaging machinery, robots and engineering expert John R. Henry reports on the cool stuff he saw at recent automation and materials handling events.

Packaging Digest should know better than to send me to the Automate/ProMat show. It’s like giving a kid a credit card and sending them to the toy store. I spent two days wandering around and taking it all in. Lots of innovation and lots of cool stuff. Here are a few of the things that impressed me.

1. Wedding bells!

Articulated arm robots have been around for a long time. So have Autonomous Mobile Robots or AMRs (also called AGV’s in the past). It was only a matter of time before someone thought of marrying the two. One problem has been the need to cage normal robots for safety. Collaborative robots eliminate that need.

Olympus Controls demonstrated a Universal Robots collaborative arm mounted on an AMR. The addition of the robot arm allows the AMR to be completely autonomous, including loading and unloading. Looks like a match made in engineers’ heaven.  

NEXT: Skeletor is here

2. Skeletor is here

Comau let me try on its Mate exoskeleton. This mounts to the user’s torso and arms. The exoskeleton is spring loaded, taking a lot of the work out of repetitive tasks. When lowering boxes from shelves, for example, the springs absorb the weight. Different configurations allow it to aid in different types of tasks.

NEXT: A tablet in your eyeball

3. A tablet in your eyeball

I’ve been advocating for years to get a tablet into every mechanic’s pocket. This gives them instant access to the information they need to do their jobs. Better than in the pocket, though, is an Android tablet in the eye, like this from realwear. If anyone wonders what to get me for a gift, here’s a hint.

It includes an eyepiece and microphone that is positioned in front of the wearer’s eye. The headmount contains a camera. Voice activation lets you say “take a picture” (or video) and it does. Say “send the picture to tech support” and off it goes. Ask for a wiring diagram and it appears in the eyepiece.

It’s a fantastic piece of tech and I can see a day soon when all engineering or maintenance staff will be wearing them.

NEXT: Custom cases created quickly

4. Custom cases created quickly

Plants that are not already high mix/low volume are being forced into it by ecommerce. High mix/low volume (HMLV) requires a large inventory of different case sizes—or a few case sizes and a lot of disposable cushioning for the landfill.

Or they can check out CMC’s CartonWrap system. Single products or groups of mixed products are placed on the infeed conveyor. The CartonWrap system dimensions them then automatically cuts, scores, folds and seals corrugated board tightly around them. This creates a tight, secure, yet easy to open box, with no stuffing.

But that’s not all! It can also print the finished box with custom color graphics and apply the shipping label.  

NEXT: Rack tug

5. Rack tug

You’ve seen its tugs used to wrangle shopping carts at the supermarket. Dane Technologies caught my eye with its SmartDrive system. This simple and compact system is smaller than a shopping cart and can move racks of material. A trailing ride-on platform lets the operator ride along, resulting in faster transport time. Less time schlepping = more productivity.

NEXT: Compact palletizing

6. Compact palletizing

Articulated robots are frequently used for palletizing but, because of the required guarding, they can have a pretty big footprint. ONExia introduced its PalletizUR based on a Universal Robots collaborative robot. This creates a palletizer that takes up next to no floor space yet will handle 50% or more of typical palletizing applications for consumer packaged goods (CPG). The light weight of the UR allows ONExia to place the robot on an elevating pedestal, greatly increasing the reach envelope.

NEXT: Robo casing

7. Robo casing

X-Pak has been building robot-based case erectors for a few years. I was always impressed on how it simplified case erecting and allowed erection of multiple case sizes at random. It has gone a step further by switching to a collaborative robot from Universal. This simplifies the system and reduces the required floor space—while maintaining most of the capabilities. Add a second robot for loading, a case taper and the palletizer from its partner ONExia and, voila! You have a complete, fully automatic packaging cell taking up very little space. More importantly, almost no changeover downtime.

NEXT: Sawyer lives!

8. Sawyer lives!

Baxter from Rethink Robotics was one of the first collaborative robots and convinced me that cobots are the future. The addition of the Sawyer model was another step forward. I was sad to write about the company’s demise last year.

I don’t usually like being proved wrong but this is an exception. Rethink Robotics has been purchased by Hahn Group, which will not only continue making Sawyer but will be adding additional models later this year.

I’d say welcome back, but they never really went away.

Trade shows are a lot of work, especially the way I visit them. I need to see everything. I walk the entire show looking for new ideas, as well as old ideas in new applications. Two days at Automate/Promat was a real learning experience.

Known as the Changeover Wizard, John R. Henry is the owner of, a consulting firm that helps companies find and fix the causes of inefficiencies in their packaging operations. He has written the book, literally, on packaging machinery ( and is the face and personality behind packaging detective KC Boxbottom, the main character in Adventures in Packaging, a popular blog on He can be contacted at [email protected].


EastPack 2019 (June 11-13) is the region's premier packaging event connecting professionals from companies like PepsiCo, Pepperidge Farms and Mars with suppliers offering the latest packaging technologies, including a range of automation solutions, from semi-automatic equipment to sophisticated "smart" systems. Register to attend today!

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