The new product has just left the factory, in a shelf-ready package in the specified mixed ratio to meet customer needs. The packaging has been handled by another company: a co-packer. Co-packing can be found in all Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) markets, but especially in the higher-priced product segments such as personal care or confectionary, to name a few examples. It is a fast-growing activity to satisfy the consumer demand for more variety.

If there is a lack of space, resources, or infrastructure in their own company, handling these activities yourself might simply be too expensive. Many decision-makers may decide to outsource the re-packaging of their products to special service providers.

Almost 90 % of respondents to a study published by the European Co-Packers Association (ECPA) state in this context that they would offer a complete service. According to three-quarters of the co-packers, the requirements, particularly in terms of quality, have also recently become significantly more demanding.

What should be considered in connection with co-packing processes and the increased demand for variant-rich products in small individual quantities – High-Mix, Low-Volume (HMLV)? New strategies and technologies are needed to support packaging processes and co-packing in the HMLV environment:

Agile manufacturing in focus: Why flexibility matters now

To approach the topic, it is first worth looking at consumer behaviours, which is currently undergoing significant changes: The trend is moving from mass consumers to consumers who make individual decisions – regardless of whether they are concerned with health, safety, freshness, or sustainability.

Added to this are changes in pack format, leading to polarization in pack size (large family and individual packs), different store displays, and advertising banners.

In this context, HMLV manufacturing models are a consequence of the growing diversity of products and packaging. A good example to illustrate such an HMLV process in the packaging environment is the repackaging of food products in multipacks –for example, different chocolate bars in a single box.

Here, the focus is not only on physical packaging and re-packing, but also about supply chain and logistics expertise, warehouse availability, the ability to defer packaging tasks, flexibility, and agility. And the most important: Quality. The right amount of the right products in the right package.

Robot-assisted automation solutions offer support

Smart robot-based automation solutions can help overcome the need for manual labour that arises in HMLV production. Such solutions include robotic picking, packing, palletizing, machine tending, and optimized automated intralogistics.

Robot-based automation gives co-packing service providers or producers who handle this activity in-house the flexibility, productivity, and reliability they need to handle ever-shorter product life cycles, changing package designs, different package sizes and product variants. The following typical five deployment challenges and solution options show what this can look like.

Challenge 1: Mixing products in secondary packaging

Mixing different single products in a display carton presents challenges. One example of this is the integrity and correctness of such multipacks must be ensured. Manual processes might be very flexible but may affect the quality and are not ideal for repeatability. In addition, it may be hard to find and retain employees for these tasks.

Another requirement is the transport of goods and consumables. Incoming goods awaiting packaging need to be processed quickly, but the packaging material must also be readily available. To cope with this, pick-and-place technology for secondary packaging processes is the ideal solution.
To handle and improve the flow of goods, a solution combines a complete range of different robotic automation technologies, for example, into a single, fully integrated packaging system that offers built-in algorithms that allow the different production lines to be coordinated and flow rates to be optimized.

No programming skills are required, as the graphical user interface (GUI) is easy to understand and use. With the help of a recipe manager, the line can also be configured for several products and switched between them at the touch of a button.

For users, this means greater flexibility, fewer machine idle times, a reduction in the workload for employees, and lower costs and complexity in the (re)packaging line.

Challenge 2: Material replenishment on the line

Optimal replenishment on the line is key to improving overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), avoiding waiting times at machines. But that’s not all: the manual activities involved in performing these tasks are often not ergonomic and can pose safety problems.

Therefore, it makes sense to improve line-side replenishment (LSR) while avoiding the need for operators to perform these repetitive tasks. Finally, automating the supply of consumables minimizes intermediate storage of consumables and waste in the re-packing area.

Cobots, perhaps combined with mobile robots, can remedy this situation by assisting with material feeding. Such collaborative robotic solutions can improve throughput while allowing employees to focus on value-added tasks.

The cobot picks up packaging materials from one position and places them directly onto the conveyor belt or into the packaging machine. Consumables no longer need to be unloaded manually.

Examples include selective compliance assembly robot arms (SCARA) tasked with loading bottles or other containers, or high-speed parallel robot solutions used to align and position items. Such automated consumable supply reduces cost and effort but also improves production consistency and output.

Employees are freed from mindless, repetitive tasks and, in addition, packaging and product combinations can be better controlled through traceability.

Challenge 3: Intralogistics and intermediate storage

Basic processes, such as the production flow in a factory, are already highly automated. Secondary processes such as the supply of consumables or the disposal of waste, are often not yet automated. Employees often still carry or push around the materials. A manual activity, which hinders efficiency and can lead to errors.

Aspects such as temporary storage or occupied production space involve significant, often hidden, costs for production managers. Innovative robotic solutions can help here to optimize the throughput and availability of required goods. Material transport and shipments can be handled by autonomous mobile robots.

The advantages of automated material transport are obvious: automatic replenishment ensures reduced inventories, space optimization, and just-in-time procurement. At the same time, waste can be minimized, and safety strengthened. Pallets are no longer needed along the line and waiting times are eliminated.

Added to this is the traceability and control of stock, while the movement of small-batch inventory (WIP) is automated.

OMRON robot solutions are based on traditional stationary robots, collaborative robots (cobots), autonomous mobile robots (AMR), or the MoMa (mobile manipulator).  For the AMRs OMRON Fleet Simulator additionally offers the industry’s first mobile robot simulator for factory and manufacturing applications.

It plans traffic and workflows for fleets of autonomous mobile robots, allowing users to identify potential bottlenecks early and optimize workflows without having to deploy a real robot at all.

Challenge 4: Unpacking and distributing goods

Distribution centers (DC) or repacking sites must deal with other challenges, including depalletizing and unpacking cartons, transporting goods to be repacked, and also disposing of waste. In addition, there is a steady increase in SKUs and a shortage of skilled labour, which further complicates the tasks. Fully or semi-automated handling and robotic transport can save a lot of effort here.

For example, robots can be used to unload pallets. Incoming goods are inspected. The cartons are then loaded either onto a conveyor belt or onto autonomous mobile robots (AMR), which then transport them further.

AMRs can operate as part of a fleet that drives autonomously and executes orders based on a picking system. The AMR can identify obstacles, avoid them, determine the optimal path, and adjust it if the environment changes. At the same time, cobots can also open boxes through automated cutting processes.

Here, the size of each incoming box is first determined to automatically find the programmed cutting lines. Cartons can be fed in a predetermined size sequence or mixed order. Packaging lines become more flexible and efficient by using such solutions. Traceability and safety also benefit.

Challenge 5: End-of-line palletizing

Palletizing is not a suitable task for human workers. It is repetitive, high cycle, and thus exposes workers to muscle aches and injuries. Workers can make mistakes such as mixing with wrong products or mispositions and missing boxes inside the pallet. To address this, the market is increasingly demanding palletizing solutions that are easy and quick to install and configure, without the need for complicated robot programming.

Innovative EOL palletizing solutions provide support here. Cobots significantly simplify palletizing. Palletizing with collaborative robots helps users quickly set up their palletizing specifications. Compared to industrial robots, such a solution requires 50% less floor space.

A safety fence or cage is not required, and operators can safely work side-by-side with the robot, enabling continuous operation. Operators can easily remove an entire pallet without stopping the cobot.

In conclusion

Modern automation and robotics solutions help make co-packing and packaging operations fit for the factory of the future by enabling a perfect balance between productivity and ease of use. Solutions are available that are scalable both upward and downward to handle swinging demands from the supply chain and reduce the total cost by reducing topics such as floor space required or intermediate stock.

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