Ecommerce/Supply Chain

Rethinking Packaging as Consumers Shift to Ecommerce

William W. Potter/Adobe Stock Adobe Stock photo of ecommerce boxes on copouter keyboard

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a plethora of challenges for both consumers and businesses. One area which has a spotlight on it is the ecommerce channel. With more people staying at home and ordering goods online, the ecommerce channel has experienced unprecedented growth from single-digit percentage sales pre-COVID, all the way up to an estimated 50% of goods being delivered to consumer doorsteps in the present environment.

What does this mean from a packaging perspective? For the most part, containers have been designed for retail sales. In the traditional retail distribution channel, containers are somewhat “coddled” from the time they leave the production line, become palletized, loaded into trucks, reach a distribution center before finding their way to a retail store. There, they are gently placed on shelfs by store employees, before taking a ride in a shopping cart, placed in a trunk and then finally arriving home.

William W. Potter/Adobe StockAdobe Stock photo of ecommerce boxes on copouter keyboard

However, during an ecommerce journey, detergent containers, beverage bottles, household cleaners and the like, endure a more rigorous journey. This is when the ongoing trend or demand for lightweighted plastic containers may come back to haunt brand owners. Other material types are also not immune to these forces, for example aluminum cans can experience dents and glass bottles can break.

Adding to the misery is potential “chargebacks” by ecommerce companies such as Amazon.  If packaging such as bubble-film wraps have to be added to help minimize damage in transport, Amazon will likely charge back the cost to the brand owner.  With margins on some products — particularly food products — being “thin,” it’s conceivable that those additional charges could wipe out profits.

Continuing down this path, there’s also a real possibility that etailers will expect packages to pass even more rigorous tests—such as drop and edge crush—before being given a passing grade.

For many companies, designing packaging for ecommerce distribution was put on the back burner.  Although, the percentage of overall sales is likely to come down somewhat post-pandemic, the likelihood that there has been a permanent seismic shift in the way people purchase good is quite high.

So, if you haven’t already started, now is the time to look at your packaging and how it performs in the ecommerce channels.  Those that do not, are likely to be left behind.

Author: Craig Robinson is the global vice president of business development and innovation at PTI. He has decades of experience in integrated marketing, concept development and sales management in packaging and branding.

About: PTI is recognized worldwide as a major source for preform and package design, package development, rapid prototyping, pre-production prototyping, and material evaluation engineering for the plastic packaging industry. For more information, visit


Bulk Bag Unloader Can Be Mounted on Load Cells

Image courtesy of Erie Technical Systems Bulk_Bag_Unloader_ERIE.png

This low-profile unit allows the operator to have control over the amount of material dispensed from the bag to downstream equipment accurately and dust-free. The control panel offers the operator a series of pre-programed recipes that can be selected depending upon batch requirements for a specific production run. Once the bag is untied the gate valve automatically controls the flow of product from fully open to dribble feed as the target weight nears and fully closed once target weight is reached.


The UltiMAX loss-in-weight bulk bag unloaders can also be equipped with alternate dispensing methods including a variable speed rotary airlock or our FlexMAX flexible screw conveyor.

Erie Technical Systems, Erie, PA. 814-899-2103

Tubes Distinguish Single-Serve Wine

TUBES Tube of wine pouring

Single-serve wine packaging has diversified over the years in a range of packaging options from airline-sized glass and plastic bottles to cartons, cans and individually portioned glasses.

Is the market ready to turn to a tubular option?

TUBES, a company based in The Netherlands, offers a compact cylindrical form to the wine, spirits, and cocktail market as “by the glass” 50-mL or 100-mL (1.5oz or 3-oz) single-serve tubes molded of glass or recycled PET (rPET) that are both 100% recyclable and indistinguishable from each other except when handled.

“It’s the perfect size for sampling and offers on-the-go portability for occasions such as one-glass picnicking,” suggests Founder-CEO Glen Ritzen, who provided the following takeaways in an exclusive interview.

Tubes Albert Heijn packaging

The benefits of the Tubes single-serve for different channels.
The “by the glass” concept offers customers to truly explore, taste, and experience wine, encourage responsible drinking and at the same time prevent waste.

Benefits include less waste of product along with weight and space savings during distribution.

Ritzen discloses the specific benefits for different market segments:

Retail: We deliver an innovative wine-tasting model as a direct-tasting marketing tool for the retailers. A box with 4 or 6 rPET tubes of wines can introduce the store’s portfolio to consumers by the glass to sample before they buy.

“It’s a new, innovative way to generate data about tasting profiles, upsell a targeted portfolio by the bottle, and improve brand awareness,” Ritzen says.

Travel: A sustainable single-serve solution has become very popular in Travel and Tourism. Advantages versus traditional packs include space savings of 127% more tubes in a drawer; 40% less weight; and the time- and cost-saving benefits valued by the travel industry. The packaging, shown below, features rPET tubes.

Ritzen points out that at WTCE 2019, the company was rewarded with an Onboard Hospitality Award in the category “Best Onboard Beverage.”

“The jury called ‘an innovative product in an innovative format. Premixed cocktails help reduce handling for crew and the concept can be easily personalized for different airlines and could suit both retail or complimentary service.’”

TUBESTubes flightpack


Sampling: Tubes offers a complete full-service sampling service that allows producers to provide professional or consumer clients with a box of 2 to 6 tubes for sampling.

“In light of covid, seven clients can be safely served tubes versus a shared bottle,” says Ritzen.

Product and packaging options are available.

Tubes are customizable for different beverages and branding for retailers, gifts, travel markets or sampling.

Ritzen plans to add a 35-mL version for spirits in the future.

“The production process is perfected and specialized for bottling any varietal of wine, cocktails, and spirits and that’s where our only focus is,” he says.

The standard tube is clear — “the product is the hero,” he notes — and custom orders using colored glass or recycled plastic is possible for high-volume projects.

A standard cap is available in different colors, but other custom options are available.

Customers can choose bottled tubes or additional multipack packaging.

Tubes in glass white

There are two main decorating options.

Every tube can be screen printed in a one-color design of the customer’s choice.

“The screen print can be personalized as desired, except for a few legal specifications,” he says.

Tubes has also sleeve-wrapped tubes with a full-color label.

The tubes are sustainable beyond standard recycling.

In addition to recycling, the tubes can be reused for different storage or decorative purposes, storing spices or craft supplies, or use as a vase for flowers.

“Our ambition is to get the supply chain circular, but as we deliver globally it is quite a task in terms of costs,” offers Ritzen.

Provide Tubes the liquid and they’ll do the rest.

Clients provide Tubes with the product, which can be delivered in liquid itself can be delivered in bulk, bag in box, or bottles. “We work according to privacy standards and have a secured, bonded warehouse with refrigerated storage,” Ritzen adds.

Tubes Delhaize Wine Tasting Set

Tubes was founded in 2015.
At the start, the tubes were mostly used by wine critics for tastings, according to Ritzen. “Slowly but surely, Tubes became more popular in other industries and grew out to be a highly desirable item. At the end of 2018, we launched the rPET plastic tube, which opened the doors to fast-moving consumer good markets including retail (supermarket/liquor store chains) and travel including airlines, trainlines, and cruise lines.”

It’s available around the world…and new customers are added regularly.

The products are available using Tube’s own brands or the brands of partners in The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, United Kingdom, Denmark, United States, Chile, and Argentina. Starting at the end of this year new Asia Pacific markets include in Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Australia.

The company is working with several companies, including winery Chateau de Pommard and retailer Ahold Delhaize show above, which used rPET tubes. The company recently started bottling similar tasting kits for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

Bottling will soon expand production to a second country.
“For the moment we only bottle in The Netherlands,” says Ritzen, “but our second facility opens in the coming months in Bordeaux, France. Our main goal is to open a bottling facility in each continent on short term, but due to Covid the openings in North America, South America, and Asia Pacific are delayed until 2021.”

For more information, visit TUBES



What is the Number One Complaint from Mechanical Engineers?

Adobe Stock 240_F_254487633_81aU6CHPdstpOGy7XkQDmMmDQQ7zsrOq.jpg

During the prolonged days of the seemingly endless pandemic, mechanical engineers are getting restless. The staffing and recruiting company, Aerotek, recently surveyed of more than 150 full-time and contract mechanical engineers across several industries and found that most respondents were not satisfied with their employers.


Aerotek collaborated with the market research firm, MDRG, to ask mechanical engineers to rate the importance of 23 factors and report on how well their current employers were delivering on them. The company also asked mechanical engineers what it would take to make them happy.

Here are the top five factors, in order of importance, that respondents offered as ways companies can improve their relations with mechanical engineers:

  1. Employ managers who care about the engineer’s career.
  2. Offer opportunities for growth and advancement.
  3. Offer clear communication about performance.
  4. Offer clear communication about expectations.
  5. Offer transparent communication about the job and the company.


What Was Unexpected in the Results?

When asked what he found to be the most surprising aspect of the responses to the survey, John Flanigan, VP of Strategic Operations or Engineering & Sciences at Aerotek, points to the largest job complaint. It’s about managers.

“The engineers’ number one want or need is for a manager to care about the engineer’s career. While I don’t find this surprising, I was disappointed to see that it ranks so high,” Flanigan tells Packaging Digest's sister publication Design News. “The huge gap between desire and delivery suggests managers and companies have a lot of work to do to engage and retain their talent. They should be focusing their energy on improving management skills.”

He notes that an engaged manager can have significant impact on whether the engineer enjoys the job.

“An invested manager significantly outranks other factors in importance and can be tied to the other three most important factors: recognition for the work; clear communication about performance; and clear communication about expectations,” says Flanigan.


What Was Completely Expected?

When asked what he most expected from the results, he indicates the third-most desired factor: Clear communication about what’s expected.

“We see that factor ranking high with workers of all types,” says Flanigan. “They want more performance feedback than they get, and not just in formal reviews but throughout their careers. They want an honest assessment of how they’re doing and how they can improve.”

He further explains that employees need to feel that they are valued and that they are achieving their goals as well as contributing to the success of the team, department, and organization.

“At Aerotek understand the importance of soliciting and giving performance feedback regularly to improve employee engagement, productivity, commitment, and retention,” says Flanigan. “For the past seven years, we’ve surveyed our own contractors and clients to better understand how we are delivering on their wants and needs.”


Satisfaction Specific to Mechanical Engineers and Their Jobs

As for how the needs of mechanical engineers play out across different roles in an oprganization, the survey found a difference between contract engineers and employed engineers.

“We noticed a striking difference in job satisfaction between contract and full-time mechanical engineers. Contract engineers are significantly more likely to report feeling happy with their job and employer,” says Flanigan. “Many more contractors report enjoying the work, and more than twice as many reported that the job is a good match for their skills. That makes sense when you think about how contract assignments work: You find exactly the right person for the project. You find out who has the right skills and who wants to do it? Full-time employees don’t have the luxury of choosing their projects.”

If job dissatisfaction is widespread among full-time mechanical engineers, what should these engineers look for when choosing a job?

“Mechanical engineers should really look closely at nuances about the environment and potential manager. If the manager is a great communicator, giving lots of information about the job details during the interview process, that’s a good sign,” says Flanigan. “Engineers can also take steps to find out more. Use the interview to determine the level of importance the manager puts on coaching and employee growth and development. If you’re working with a recruiter, ask about other contractors’ experiences working for the manager.”

Aerotek hosts the engineering job site: Overcoming Inertia: Propelling Mechanical Engineering Careers Forward. The site was designed to compare the main industries that employ mechanical engineers and offer alternative career options for job seekers.


Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

Ecommerce/Supply Chain

US Manufacturers Slammed by the Pandemic

Fictiv k_-o1ZhN.png

If 2019 was a tough year for manufacturing, 2020 is even worse. Turns out US manufacturers are struggling through some formidable challenges during this pandemic. Manufacturing ecosystem company, Fictiv, released its annual State of Manufacturing Report and the timing was just right for showing an industry back on its heels. Manufacturing leaders are grappling with fallout from the pandemic while eyeing new opportunities created by the disruption.


Key findings include:

  • 89% of US manufacturers report a direct business impact from COVID-19, including lower sales, increased costs of materials and production, and canceled or delayed product launches
  • Only 17% gave top marks to their supply chain’s performance over the last year.
  • A majority are revisiting their reliance on China and looking to the U.S. as the next key manufacturing center
  • 97% said COVID-19 has created new opportunities, with 87% making digital transformation a high priority
  • Supply chain resilience is important to 99% of respondents, with 96% working to increase supply chain agility

Apparently, many manufacturers are taking this unusual moment in the market to improve their agility and shore up their supply chains.

The report’s findings were culled from hundreds of senior decision makers in healthcare, robotics, auto, aerospace, and other hardware manufacturers. The findings include detailed stats on business impacts, thoughts on digital innovation and budgets, and how to view China’s changing role.

“The world has changed dramatically since last year. 2019’s trade war and 2020’s global pandemic have manifested as the same core business challenges: lower sales, inflated costs, and cancelled or delayed launches,” Fictiv CEO Dave Evans told Packaging Digest's sister publication Design News. “The pandemic has suppressed demand, workforce, and supply for everyone all at once, triggering negative impacts on a much more massive scale than businesses reported in last year’s survey.” 


Manufacturers Are Slammed by the Pandemic

Further details of the report reveal a manufacturing industry that has taken a significant blow but is willing and ready to make the changes required to emerge from the dark times stronger and more agile.

COVID-19 Has Negatively Harmed 89% of Businesses and Industries

  • Sales are down 44%, cost of materials and components have increased 41%, and production times have lengthened 41%
  • 36%  have had to lay off good employees
  • 24% have been unable to fill customer orders

Digital and AI Advances are Important, But Funding Still Lags

  • 87% have a high priority digital transformation initiative
  • Reducing cost (46%), increasing supply chain visibility (42%), and driving efficiencies (40%) are some of the top goals for these digital efforts
  • Yet, only 14% believe their digital transformation initiative is well funded, and 81% face difficulty finding necessary expertise

Supply Chains Will Look Different, But China Remains an Option

  • 83% agree COVID-19 has been an extreme test of their supply chain
  • 84% say they will be more cautious about offshoring now than in the past
  • While 73% will minimize reliance on China, 74% will continue to source some parts from the region

We may see a different manufacturing world in the US once the dust finally settles on COVID-19. Those companies that take advantage of changing circumstances to shore up their operations and markets, may find themselves with stronger supply chains that are less subject to disruption. They may also strengthen their domestic production and domestic supply sources.

“The primary shift from 2019 to 2020 is that this year, 96% of respondents see supply chain resilience as a top priority for future business growth and actively working to increase agility in their supply chain,” said Evans. “The prevailing thought is that manufacturing companies who survive COVID-19 will be the ones that saw the innovation opportunities – not just the problems. Digital transformation, with digital manufacturing platforms at the forefront, will be key as the manufacturing industry finally reckons with its true tech moment.”


Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Packaging Digest's sister publication Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

Ecommerce/Supply Chain

The Hidden Risk of Single Sourcing Your Packaging

Photo credit: mavoimages – Supply-room-mavoimages-AdobeStock_270404891-featured.jpeg

At first glance, single sourcing sounds like common sense. You can build a good relationship with your one, top supplier over time and be reliant on them. This can bring a lot of benefits, like better trouble management and dispute resolution. A solid, long-term relationship with your packaging supplier is a great foundation for your business.

It’s also a strategy that comes with significant risk.

Recent events such as the US-China trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused massive disruptions in global supply chains. The impact has also been felt in packaging supply. Shutdowns and shipping delays have completely upended established supply networks and have left many buyers scrambling for continuity of supply. And the impact is made much more severe if you are relying on a single source for your packaging.

Single sourcing can put your business at risk in two ways. The first is when a supplier unexpectedly goes offline for whatever reason. This can leave you scrambling to find a new supplier, which can be a big challenge when supply networks are in chaos.

The second way is not so obvious. By relying on a single supplier, you may also be over-relying on informal and undocumented business processes. If that supplier goes offline, it could be difficult to unravel those processes to set up a new supplier.

It can also take a long time to set up the new supplier if your artwork and specs are not properly documented or freely available. And during a lockdown situation where travel is impossible, it may also be impossible to put people on the ground to ensure everything is to spec and your new supplier is performing, even if they’re only in the next state.

This hidden risk is dangerous to your business because it can cause delays at a time when you need to move quickly. And delays in setting up a new supplier can mean an interruption in your continuity of supply. So how do you address this hidden risk?

The solution is to build flexibility into your supply chain. Here are three steps.


Build supply chain flexibility.

Building flexibility into your supply chain ensures you won’t get caught off guard. It removes the hidden risk of single sourcing and gives you options when a crisis occurs.

The goal of building flexibility is to make your supply chain as portable as possible so you can efficiently switch suppliers when your supply is interrupted. To do this, you need to make three key changes to your procurement operations:  

1. Identify and document key processes.

Analyze your product categories to see where you’re at risk. Are you relying too much on one supplier for a critical component or process? Do you have local in-person oversight and quality-assurance (QA) monitoring of press runs and production in case of a travel ban?

2. Simplify and consolidate stakeholder communications.

Bring all your stakeholders into a single conversation to ensure information flows are fast and accurate. Consider replacing email and Excel files with online collaboration tools to communicate mission-critical information such as artwork.

3. Move to an online workflow management structure.

Create a central database for your approved and formal specifications and artwork to ensure these critical assets are at your fingertips when you need them. Automate workflows to remove reliance on informal arrangements and enable real-time monitoring and control of key processes.


The bottom line? Have options.

Building in flexibility protects your supply chain from hidden risks. Because your processes are all documented and automated, you can easily switch production to a new supplier when a crisis occurs. And with a strong professional network and online collaboration platform you can ensure that vital functions such as artwork approval and on-site quality control go smoothly without interrupting your continuity of supply.

More importantly, when your supply chain is flexible and secure you have options. You can choose to stay with a single supplier. This lets you enjoy the benefits of a long-term relationship knowing you can quickly change suppliers without interrupting your supply chain. Or you can choose to diversify your supply chain to multiple suppliers knowing that your processes, specs, and artwork will be consistent across your entire supply chain.


Change and disruption is inevitable. It’s better to respond to changes with confidence than to react in fear. By building flexibility into your packaging supply chain, you not only give yourself the freedom to respond to changes, you also give yourself options. So when your competitors are reacting, you’re choosing the right option and going back to business as usual.

Closed-Loop Recycling Recaptures High-Value Food Packaging

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Polypropylene (PP) is without a doubt one of the most popular and versatile polymers created. Its high rigidity-to-weight ratio, strength, transparency, and toughness enables it to be used across multiple industries from packaging to textiles and cars. Even the surgical masks the world is now wearing are made from PP.

Ironically, the polymer’s extreme versatility results in its absence from recycling streams. The fact that PP is used in so many applications such as pots, tubs, and trays and not predominantly in bottles like PET and HDPE is the reason it is barely recycled, even in developed countries. 

To make matters worse, to date there is no food-grade recycled PP available for reuse into new packaging. Yet in the UK alone about 300,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) or 330,693 US tons yearly of PP is used in packaging, of which about 70% (210,000tpa/231,485 tons/year) is food-grade packaging.

But things are about to change. Currently PP comprises 20% of global plastics production, and this figure is growing at 6%. In 2018, 56 million metric tons were produced valued at $97 billion. It has been estimated that by 2025 we will be producing 83 million metric tons worth $147 billion.

Finally, PP has reached a critical percentage of the packaging stream, which means it can be readily recycled once it is collected.

Demand and vision.

As a specialist in plastics recycling, one of the most pressing enquiries I receive regularly from retailers and brand owners alike relates to unlocking the value in PP and turning it into high quality food-grade rPP. This has been the key driver behind the multi-client NEXTLOOPP project.

While the UK Plastics Tax on packaging with less than 30% recycled content has been a major incentive, I also see companies meeting the plastics waste issue head-on and finding real, sustainable, long-term solutions to address this crisis.

A check of global brand’s pledges confirms that the commercial world is finally taking plastic waste seriously. From the likes of Unilever, McDonalds, and Coca Cola that are pledging to make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, most are targeting 25% recycled content by 2025. Most organizations have concluded that we simply can’t afford to ignore the imperatives of tackling waste.

The fundamental question is, why continue inundating our environment with more plastic when we have the core technologies to finally close the loop on PP?

PP is a fantastic polymer resource that is currently either going to landfill or being reused where other lesser polymers would suffice. It is a waste of precious energy to produce virgin PP when we have the capability to efficiently identify, sort, decontaminate, and recycle the current pots, trays, and tubs that are being produced.

NextLooPP’s mission is to create circular food-grade PP from post-consumer packaging. The goal is to establish a supply-chain model for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of food-grade PP packaging. From there we aim to efficiently manufacture high-quality and food-grade PP.

Over the next 24 months we will shift from pilot to large-scale operations to eventually create rPP that can be used across a wide range of applications and products to meet recycled packaging targets.


Dynamic innovative tech.

We already have the cutting-edge technologies required to decontaminate and sort. The sorting technology alone is poised to transform the way recycling is managed as it has the potential to identify and sort all waste rapidly and efficiently and at high purity. The PRISM marker-based sorting technology (see ‘Invisible barcode’ tech enables recycling of PP food packaging, published January 2020) has been proven to be effective at full speed even on highly soiled and damaged packaging. PRISM is plug-and-play ready and can be readily implemented in most recycling plants.

We also have developed powerful decontamination technologies that enables redefining what is possible through reuse and recycling of PP. As such, one of the first materials NextLooPP will manufacture will be inert grade PP.

Inert PP: An innovative polymer type.

We call it inert as it will have no odor and no migration challenges for many products. This breakthrough, high-quality polymer will satisfy many demanding applications ranging from packaging to cosmetics. 

While our mission is to get more food-grade material back into food-contact applications, the cutting-edge technology boosts the economics for recyclers through the creation of high-value, recycled PP for many nonfood contact applications including cosmetics.

Mechanical versus chemical recycling.

Mechanical recycling makes perfect sense to transform the existing recycling and decontamination processes to boost economic efficiency and reduce cost.

There have been a few raised eyebrows when it comes to this standard method rather than chemical recycling however. The reasoning is that chemical recycling has a greater carbon footprint than mechanical recycling and requires more intensive capital-per-plant investment, thus large-scale chemical recycling plants remain years away.

Mechanical recycling is the perfect low-cost, highly efficient solution particularly when we are using high quality feedstock.

The next steps forward.

The next key steps towards producing food-grade rPP for reuse in consumer products are the establishment of EFSA and US FDA certification for the manufacturing processes. To address that, NextLooPP aims to develop new guideline for food-grade recycling for brand owners, retailers and converters. There will be no middle measures, thus ensuring that the loop for PP will only improve over time.

First creating and then closing the loop on food-grade PP has taken eight years of intense research and commercial trials — and we are now poised to finally close the loop in the circularity of PP as we very much look forward to this next exciting stage.

About NextLooPP -

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The Case of the Missing Moments

Photo credit: Lucky_Dragon_USA – Stopwatch-Lucky_Dragon_USA-AdobeStock_26023176-featured.jpeg

Another day in lockdown, I was ho-humming it with my Marmaduke Surfaceblow collection. When the phone rang, it was Alanys. “KC, you have to help me. I’m losing money and can’t figure out why.”

It sounded essential, so I promised I’d be right over.

“My boss says I’m coming up short on production. I’ve looked at how we’re running and can’t see why. What’s wrong?”

“Let’s go have a looksee,” I told her. As soon as we got to the line, I saw the problem. The inline filler was the constraint and I fingered the problem. It was the indexing.   

“Fiddlesticks on line losses,” I vociferated. “You’ve got an index problem.” I adjusted it and told her to watch her boss smile.

“I don’t see any difference,” Alanys told me.

“Look closely. I took two seconds out of the index cycle time. Now you are running 60 bottles per minute instead of 56.”

She looked dubious. “How is two seconds going to help me? Two seconds is nothing.”

“Trust the numbers,” I explained. “Two extra seconds means four extra bottles. Every single minute. You run 24/5 or 360,000 minutes per year. If you run four more bottles each minute, it’s a million plus extra bottles per year.

“You need to make sure that your team sets the speed correctly every day and you need to monitor it constantly to make sure those two seconds don’t go missing again.”

Still think two seconds is nothing? Alanys doesn’t.

Will You Soon Download Packaging Machine Controls from the Internet?

Rexroth's Factory of the Future vision includes a suite of smart, connected products that give insight into a packaging line's productivity.

Led by the mantra that “mechanical engineering is based on software development,” Rexroth, a Bosch Co., has brought a new generation of automation software to market. The new system, ctrlX Automation, extends beyond the company’s hardware heritage in areas of hydraulic, electric, pneumatic, and mechanical drive and control technologies to offer a platform for complete automation solutions.

The new software-focused system brings traditional tools together with IT standards to bring control engineering into the age of smart manufacturing the Internet of Things (IoT), in keeping with a new corporate strategy we reported on last year. This relates to our May story, “3 Packaging Lines Improved by IoT Data,” but the company wanted to wait to disclose details pending its US market release…which is now official.

Dave Cameron, director of sales, presents latest update on Rexroth’s “Factory of the Future” vision.


Designed for machine builders, systems integrators, and end users with the resources to do their own control engineering, the system is initially targeted for “specific, focused applications,” namely robotics, material handling, and drives. In packaging, this makes it applicable for secondary and end-of-line realms. According to Dave Cameron, director of sales, future apps are in the works for additional packaging, assembly, printing, additive manufacturing, and machine tool apps.

Abbreviating applications to “apps,” incidentally, is one cue that the system is positioned for this era of IoT- and mobile-friendly deployments, as evident in the internet standards that largely define the system.

The software includes preconfigured apps that can be further customized. These include a PLC, motion controller, drive, human-machine interface (which can be web-based), monitoring dashboard, IoT gateway, and more. Apps in development include artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning routines to monitor and detect variations in machines or processes. (See more apps here.)

Hardware designed for IoT-aware apps.

Rexroth says the system has “eradicated the traditional boundaries between machine control systems, IT, and the Internet of Things.”

Let’s start with a new generation of hardware control modules called ctrlX Core. Based on 64-bit multicore CPUs. The control modules are offered in three forms: a standalone ctrlX controller, on a control module integrated into a servo drive, or an industrial PC. These run Linux, with the IPC running Windows and also getting a Linux release. This offers scalability depending on the function, from real-time control to the greater overhead of workstation-level applications, as needs require. These support fieldbus options such as EtherCAT, Sercos, Ethernet IP, and Profinet. Support, in fact, spans common device protocols, interfaces, and communication standards, including support for more than 30 IT and IoT standards OPC UA (server and client) and MQTT, the leading machine-to-machine connectivity protocol well known for driving closer interfacing between operational and IT systems.


Software designed for IT inroads.

Cameron called the software “the heart” of the new platform. That being the case, the system’s crown jewel software, ctrlX Works, is its digital heart of hearts. Claims that it reduces engineering time by 30% of 50% owes to the software’s large portfolio of preconfigured apps for common factory automation tasks. Users can customize them, develop their own (in seemingly any programming language), and more integrate third-party apps with relative standards-compliant ease.

Starting with programming, users can choose between their familiar, traditional tools as well as new methods. These include IEC 61131, PLCopen, or G-Code, or other conventional high-level or internet languages, which Rexroth says “liberate” teams from depending only on hard-to-find PLC specialists.

Software functions can be based on preconfigured or customized apps, combining traditional and newer languages: C++, Python scripting, or graphical languages, such as Blockly or Node Red, a low-code Javascript graphical environment. This variety helps users expand their skills (and recruiting) base and opens new possibilities for app development through GitHub, the leading open-source community for code-sharing.

The software for system design, maintenance and engineering can be accessed directly on the ctrlX CORE controller, by using any device with a simple web-browser.  This eliminates the need for separate engineering software on a different PC.

To show how web-based engineering works, Rexroth’s Brian Schmidt, application engineering supervisor, demonstrated the creation a 3-axis motion control app using IoT-friendly Node Red, which he also uses to build a web-based human-machine interface. “Most of the program flow is created graphically, but you can also write snippets of code,” he says, as he creates the program, jogging axes and the robot. He then tests the system using a 3D visualization app for feedback. Users can simulate their project before they download their actual automation programs to real-world hardware. He also created a pick-and-place application using different programming options. (See video below.)

Rexroth’s Brian Schmidt demonstrates web-based engineering by building a 3-axis motion control app (at the 5-minute mark), and shows its operation using a 3D visualization app. At the 10-minute mark, he shows another way to program a pick-and-place application, then gives a closer look at the control hardware running the demo.


App store, code sharing.

The apps are modular, and priced individually. “You just buy the software according to what you need for your application,” says Allen Tubbs, product manager Rexroth controls. Also in the works: a device portal for at-machine upgrades and an online app store. According to Tubbs, the system is designed to be “as open as possible. That means inviting customers and even other providers to develop solutions around our architecture.” He says the company currently has a developer portal, and plans to encourage GitHub participation, as well.

Assurances of future-proofing include extensive compliance with standards for data communications and legacy software migration/interfacing; secure encrypted communications based on IEC standards that will continue to evolve; and provisions for 5G and time-sensitive networking.

As end users gain experience with IoT data visibility, this type of system is poised to help companies extend their IoT implementations for greater machine, line, and plant performance. The data connectivity and visibility gained, Rexroth points out, will lead to more effective forays in machine learning and AI, up to and including lights-out manufacturing.


Sustainable Packaging Success Starts with Design Thinking

Photo courtesy of Loop CBX-Loop-products-featured.jpg
Sustainable packaging can motivate consumers to pay extra, and sustainable brands can emphasize the reward for both people and the planet.

People are clamoring for authentic brands that walk the talk on sustainability. But the truth is, most consumers are unwilling to pay extra to support consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and brands seeking to bring about that better world.

It usually works something like this: During the testing phase, consumers flatly declare their intent to purchase a new sustainable package. After the actual rollout, however, they balk at the price, the product fails, and the CPG conglomerate, now gun shy, opts to wait for a startup with “eco” in its title to take the lead — and the risk — on sustainability.

People like the idea of embracing responsible purchasing behavior. The problem is in the framing: Paying a voluntary penalty is a tough sell no matter the domain.

But if we can shift the focus of this conversation to emphasize the reward for both parties, brands will connect with consumers in powerful new ways. How do we get there?

The principles of Design Thinking offer a path forward.

As noted by the Interaction Design Foundation, Design Thinking “revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing products or services.” The basic insight: If you think carefully about what it’s like to be your customer, you can craft a superior experience that cements long-term loyalty and drives strong brand-identification.

And when you put yourself in the shoes of today’s consumers, one thing is clear: They are increasingly being forced to come to terms with the problems facing the world.


Face the Facts. 

This past May, CBX and the research firm element54 surveyed about 3,000 consumers across North America to learn more about how COVID-19 had affected their perceptions of trash. According to the study, 38% of Americans and 26% of Canadians indicated a belief that they were producing more garbage. When you’re sheltering in place, all of your trash and recycling is right before your eyes.

But epiphanies triggered by COVID-19 are hardly limited to rubbish. The crisis has underscored just how interconnected and vulnerable we all are. Suddenly, we realize that problems like climate change and plastic pollution are just as real, and that we could be leaving them to future generations to solve.

Moving forward, then, we’re likely to see an intensification of the existing disconnect between expectations and action. Unless that changes, it won’t be good for the relationships between consumers and brands.


Leverage the Power of Nudge.

To be on the right side of history — and bring consumers along for the ride — you have to do what works. And according to some experts in behavioral economics, preaching to consumers is about as ineffective as it gets.

By contrast, when you stop talking about sustainability and start guiding consumers to do the right thing, you can move the needle. “A gentle push, a nudge, in the right direction can help,” writes Kristof Rubens, a government policy advisor in the Flemish region of Belgium. He was part of a study in which researchers used insights into human nature — a core principle of Design Thinking — to drive healthier eating. The techniques included:

• using visual and verbal cues to induce a novelty-seeking mindset;

• employing the scarcity principle (“limited availability”) to drive demand; and

• adding natural elements (a wooden plate or an olive oil flask and some peppers) to bolster visual attractiveness.

That’s all familiar territory for CPG package designers. However, other nudges were subtler. Having understood the phenomenon of “flexitarianism” — people who aim to eat vegetarian but occasionally succumb to carnivory — the Flemish researchers put veggie-based items right next to those juicy steaks. The sinful appeal of the meat dishes rubbed off on their new neighbors.

Sales of the vegetarian items doubled.

Notice how the conversation here shifted away from explicit, moralistic references (consumers read this as a penalty) and toward what is easy, natural, and rewarding — in other words, a benefit. Aligning incentives in this way gives you a realistic chance of shifting human behavior. Just ask B.F. Skinner.

The win-win approach of Litter One — a 100% biodegradable kitty litter system — also emphasizes benefits to the consumer. In the run-of-the-mill approach to maintaining a conventional litter box, people scoop out the litter and waste, put it in plastic grocery bags and throw them away. It’s a smelly, wasteful process.

Litter One users subscribe to receive biodegradable litter boxes that basically maintain themselves. The litter is made out of pine pellets. “All you do is open the box, put a few tabs in place, and set it out for your cat to use,” the company explains. “When your cat urinates on the pellets, they turn to sawdust and fall through the patented false floor.”

Subscribers get their brand-new Litter One boxes mailed to them every four or six weeks. It’s easier, cleaner, and better for the planet — the kind of approach that triggers consumers’ feel-good neurotransmitters.

Brand strategists and designers, as they seek to make progress on sustainability, would do well to dive into research on behavioral economics that can support such efforts. One example, highlighted in the February 2019 Journal of Marketing, is the SHIFT method for guiding consumers toward sustainable choices. It stands for Social influence, Habit formation, Individual self, Feelings and cognition, and Tangibility. Another useful read: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014), by Nir Eyal.

CPG brands and their agencies should also consider doing something that may sound a bit heretical in our society of endless options — giving consumers fewer choices.


Rationalize the Menu.

The operative idea here: Instead of giving people a choice between a sustainable pack and a landfill-clogging one, make all of the options sustainable, and affordable, too.

Admittedly, this is a longer-term goal, but manufacturers and designers are already working to support sustainability initiatives by revamping their internal processes. The likes of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Loop can act as force-multipliers in those efforts. The latter organization is working with major brands like Crest, Gillette, Clorox, Glad, and Häagen-Dazs to catalyze the consumer shift from single-use to reusable packages.

The benefit argument works here, too: A stainless-steel container of Häagen-Dazs keeps the ice cream colder and fresher.

“Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has had its day. The future belongs to those who can Replace and Rethink.