This is the third in a series of columns addressing the findings of the “Automation in Packaging” study recently published by Packaging Digest and Control Engineering (see www.packagingdigest.com/automation research). The first installment in February looked at the skills and industry experience of the typical packaging system integrator. Last month's installment tried to glean from the study's statistics why it is that system integrators seem to be losing interest in the packaging industry.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of system integrators to choose from when developing a packaging automation project. Packaging Digest's Integrator Guide (under the Resources tab at www.packagingdigest.com) includes more than 500 integrators, and those who responded to this study's survey expressed an interest in becoming involved in just about all phases of their clients' projects.
In fact, more than half advise packagers to engage an integrator to help identify opportunities for automation, even before the project has been designed. Laurens Van Pagee, director of branch operations at JMP Eng., the 2009 Packaging Integrator of the Year, notes that “the earlier you can engage an integrator in your buying cycle, the better. The more they understand the business impact of the project, the better aligned the solution will be with your stakeholders' expectations.” See also, “Involve Integrators Early” in the November 2008 issue of Packaging Digest.
Van Pagee adds that “opportunities exist today that didn't exist a year ago. Sensing technologies allow robotics and automation to sense their environment through vision guidance and force feedback systems. This has enabled a new wave of manual processes—some that used to require the dexterity and flexibility of a person—to be automated. This allows automation to handle the typical variety of SKUs and demanding throughput requirements seen in a packaging department.”
Exploring those new opportunities might well benefit from an integrator's experience, or so said about half of the integrators responding to the survey. Another third advised bringing an integrator at the conceptual design stage to help develop the basic framework for the automation system required to realize the packager's objectives. About one in eight respondents suggested they should get involved at the detailed design stage where the conceptual design is translated into specific plans and specifications. A detailed design for an automation project is particularly challenging for nonspecialists to generate on their own because it involves deciding not only what the automation system needs to do but how to do it.
Curiously, almost none of the respondents advised bringing in an integrator at the installation phase, yet 4 percent of respondents felt that the final troubleshooting stage would be the best time to engage an integrator. This is curious given that 73 percent of the 500-plus integrators listed in the Packaging Integrator Guide cite installation and startup services among their engineering specialties. Maybe waiting until the installation phase to bring in an integrator would be too late.