8 Pitfalls to Avoid on Automated Packaging Lines

Your automated secondary packaging line will operate much more smoothly if you consider potential drawbacks, including a lack of redundancy and ignoring worker input to low magazine capacity and missed cybersecurity.

Megan Nichols

June 24, 2020

5 Min Read
You can avoid running a sub-optimized packaging line by asking for suggestions or improvements from the line operators.Photo credit: auremar – stock.adobe.com

Automation can reshape our world for the better, if we let it. When it comes to repetitive tasks like packaging and distributing consumer goods, wise investments in secondary packaging machinery can improve results and help reskill employees for more valuable roles.

If you’re looking to augment your packaging line’s efforts through automation to pack your product for shipment, you’ll want to avoid the following pitfalls.


1. Not including redundancy.

Automated packaging equipment represents a not-inconsiderable expense. It may be tempting to forego purchasing spare equipment or parts to save money on Day One. However, this becomes a costly mistake when one of your critical machines malfunctions at an inopportune moment.

You could tape boxes by hand in a pinch. However, moving heavy shipments or printing packing labels can’t be done by hand as quickly or at all.

Add smart redundancies throughout the packaging line to anything without an easy manual failover protocol in place. You’ll be able to immediately switch to backup equipment if something unexpected happens that threatens your productivity — especially when casters on the machines makes them that more mobile.


2. Overdesigning product packaging.

Getting the best performance out of your automated packaging equipment might require that you rethink your product packaging.

Whether your products ship in their own package or require an outer box or envelope, they still need some combination of human and machine intervention. If employees must manipulate, fold or form every unit to prepare it for packaging, you’re looking at a bottleneck that defeats the purpose of automated equipment.

While designing your packaging, prioritize simplicity and sustainability — two factors that consumers value more highly than flashiness and complexity.


3. Using small magazines for consumables.

Boxes, tape, cushioning, and labels are just some of the consumables your packaging line might consume. As you automate your processes, remember to minimize the number of interventions your staff must make on an average day.

For consumable products, that means opting for the largest magazines available. Reducing the number of pauses for refilling keeps wasteful downtime to a minimum and helps maintain consistent workflows.


4. Not considering operating speed.

Each piece of automated packaging equipment requires a different amount of time to complete its task. It could take longer to print a packing slip than to assemble a case, for example. It’s possible to take these differences into account by adding appropriate accumulation or by putting slower automated processes at the end of the line.

As boxes get assembled, and dunnage gets parceled out, the printer — or perhaps more than one, depending on the volume you handle — prepares the packing slip. Any good vendor should help you dial-in the right synchronicity between your machines.


5. Not asking frontline workers for input.

Automation isn’t a panacea. It’s an asset in the right situation — but an investment like this needs a problem to solve. Above any other priority, automation must serve the needs of the facility and the team first. You’ll see some tempting offers for one-size-fits-all automation solutions. But remember that no two facilities are alike.

Be willing to directly explore the challenges and potential solutions with your frontline workers to understand how the available products can support operations. In turn, your chosen vendor should be willing to work just as candidly with you to find a system that fits like a glove.

Properly executing on a project of this scale requires that all parties assume ownership over their processes and work together toward a holistic solution that meets the whole organization’s needs.


6. Not including a protocol for handling exceptions.

No packaging process, no matter how well automated or planned, is immune to the occasional exception. Sometimes, something goes wrong, and a bunch of packages gets kicked out all at once. Your new automated packaging line must be able to quickly handle incomplete orders, unscannable bar codes, damaged products, and other defects.

Even an automated packaging line needs to incorporate areas for rejected shipments and places where employees can intervene using the least number of touches. Automation mostly takes care of itself, but not planning for disruptions and errors common in this industry would be a mistake.


7. Taking cybersecurity for granted.

“The industrial robot is not ready for the world it’s living in,” says Mark Nunnikhoven of Trend Micro, in a ComputerWorld article. He may be right. The world of supply chains, shipping, and third-party logistics is as ripe for exploitation by cybercriminals as any other.

Automation is a valuable addition to packaging and production lines, but industrial equipment often has a blind spot concerning cybersecurity. In 2018, researchers concluded that almost half of the industrial control systems they studied show signs of malicious activity.

The fourth industrial revolution — Industry 4.0 — features a convergence of Big Data, automation, and machine intelligence. Packaging might feel like a relatively low-stakes process, but it’s just one part of a smart warehouse or factory. Any weak link in this ecosystem invites bad actors to try ransomware attacks, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and even causing physical damage to industrial facilities.


8. Putting the cart before the horse.

Remember that this tool represents more than just incremental efficiency improvements. Think about automation as a business-shaping force. It can facilitate employee upskilling, improve customer results through faster turnarounds, and reduce fulfillment errors, all of which keep more money in your and your employees’ pockets.


Planning to implement automation? Do it the right way.

Don’t invest blindly in automation. A packaging line is more than the sum of its parts, just as a business is. Thinking about the whole department holistically, as a single process rather than several, will ensure money well spent.


About the Author(s)

Megan Nichols

Megan Nichols is a technical writer and blogger who covers industrial and scientific topics. She regularly contributes to sites like American Machinist, IoT Times, and Real Clear Science. Nichols also writes easy-to-understand science and technology articles on her blog, Schooled By Science, to encourage others to take an interest in these subjects. Read more of her work by subscribing to her blog or following her on Twitter.

Sign up for the Packaging Digest News & Insights newsletter.

You May Also Like