Robotics in Industry 4.0 – Five major challenges for the packaging industry

Smithers Pira identifies how the adoption of automation and digitalisation platforms will revolutionise the packaging industry.

Industry 4.0 has the potential to alter radically all stages of the packaging industry, with new efficiencies and unprecedented accuracy in data exchanges creating a leaner, more responsive, more engaged supply chain.

The 4.0 challenge

Since it was first used by the German Government in a 2011 technology strategy in 2011, the Industry 4.0 concept has been a buzz topic for many manufacturing sectors. Broadly it can be understood as updated methods of production in which all machines and products are digitally networked together.

Incorporating diverse concepts – like the Internet of Things, Cloud computing, and artificial intelligence – its goal is to change traditional industrial production plants into the smart factories of the future. How to most efficiently adopt these concepts into the packaging industry remains a challenge, however.

In its brand new study - The Impact of Industry 4.0 on Packaging to 2023 - Smithers Pira pinpoints the nascent technologies that are enabling this fourth industrial revolution and highlights five major changes that will be witnessed across the next five years. This covers five key areas and concepts:

  • Automation & Robotics
  • Smart Packaging
  • Big Data & Cloud computing
  • Mass-customisation
  • E-commerce.

Each is analysed across five key stages in the packaging production and use cycle. This article examines key future developments in just one – Automation & Robotics.

Smart factories 2018

The packaging industry is responding to increasing brand owner demands for shorter product life cycles and cost driving variation – leading to shorter runs, more line changes and more down time on traditionally configured converting lines. A new generation of robotic systems and, in particular, improvements in data flow means package production can integrate and connect key processes – design, production, distribution, maintenance – into a single holistic approach, rather than relying on separate islands of automation.

The most significant impacts of new robotic platforms will be felt in converting and distribution.

Bright Dairy, the third biggest player in China growing dairy foods market has collaborated with Tetra Pak to design a manufacturing facility for yoghurts in the city of Tianjin; when fully integrated it will be able to process 500 tonnes of raw milk daily. All processing and packaging operations in the entire plant and their respective enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems will be integrated with the Swiss firm’s PlantMaster MES Suite.

The platform includes equipment, quality and utility management, a warehouse management system plus a system for traceability analysis and report from reception of raw milk to warehouse handling using QR codes. Tetra Pak could offer them the PlantMaster MES Suite, a solution that connects processing and packaging into one system, in one digital environment and on one screen. Besides improving manufacturing efficiency all relevant production data is available to operators in real time in a single location, enabling Bright to manage the growing requirements for food safety, quality and traceability in China.

In December 2017 BASF embarked on a digital transformation via a strategic partnership with Dutch start-up company Ahrma Holding B.V. to jointly approach the growing market for smart logistic solutions and a more transparent, reliable and efficient supply chain ecosystem.

Market challenges

To further advance the Industry 4.0 concept for automation there are five key challenges that Smithers Pira sees as essential across the next five years.

Co-operating with robots 

Human-Robot interaction is today complicated because of the risk for injuries. Pre-Industry 4.0 manufacturers have solved this issue by not letting humans and robots share workspaces.

This will change with the evolution of superior artificial intelligence allowing for collaborative working between people and a new generation of co-operative robots, or cobots. Collaboration is not only about safety, it means that people and robots working close together with flexibility and productivity.

In addition, a different class of cobots are taking shape. Dubbed chatbots these are designed to aid knowledge workers by assembling information from backend systems, such as the latest inventory levels or arrival time of the shipment. They are intended to be accessible via a variety of interfaces such as web, mobile app or AR glasses.

System-wide machine learning

Historically automated systems have been limited by the vision and software installed by the original programmer. This approach is now changing as superior machine learning algorithms are installed on industrial plants.

Machine learning algorithms are required with computational methods to improve themselves, or the equipment they operate – in effect learning information directly from data without relying on a pre-set and fixed equation or programme without human interaction. For these to optimise production the more data that can be produced the better, and the greater the refinement of performance. Translated to the packaging industry this will increasingly be about analysing information from thousands of remote sensors to reduce product defects, shorten unplanned downtimes, improve transition times, and increase production speed.

Robotic systems can already proactively monitor and adapt to changes in a production line. By networking multiple machines, each robot will increasingly be able to adapt dynamically not just to its work, but that of other robot and humans within the smart factory.

Major companies are now making investments in machine learning-powered approaches to improve in principle all aspects of manufacturing. It is projected to grow noticeably and in the coming five years this will spread for specialised industries into mainstream sectors, including packaging. To realise machine learning’s full potential however, companies must break down data silos. Pooling data for advanced synthesis across companies is key to creating new, performance-based business models.

A common machine language

Industry 4.0 cannot operate without standardised interfaces between machines.

Packaging equipment producers are a step ahead of the rest of the industry in this with the Packaging Machine Language (PackML). First developed over a decade ago this digital communication standard allows a common interface experience and operational consistency across a packing line.

The robot producers have agreed to use PackML moving forward. And by 2023 the language is likely to enjoy the status of a global industry standard. For example, EUROMAP – the umbrella organisation of the European plastics and rubber machinery industry –recently accepted the PackML for Industry 4.0 work.

A changing labour force

With a higher degree of automation in a smart factory fewer workers will be needed. Lower skilled workers like drivers, and cleaners will face redundancy. In contrast there will be a premium on employ more skilled workers – especially software engineers and programmers.

The introduction of more robots in production plants will change strategic geographical considerations. Relocating facilities in search of cheap labour will be less of a priority as this approach will have much less impact on final cost – hence packaging manufacturers can relocate plants closer to their customers and realise new time and logistics savings.

This will allow some rebasing of factories to North America and Western Europe. Meanwhile the importance of software means large firms will be able to control multiple sites from a centralised hub, giving greater control and uniformity in package production and printing.

Improved cyber security

Stuxnet – programmed by the Israeli intelligence services to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment – has shown how vulnerable an integrated plant can be computer viruses. And as more and more systems are connected to smart devices, enterprise systems and the Internet, pack manufacturing operations will be increasingly exposed to cyber attacks.

It is worrying easy for a determined hacker to break in to the network and download control logic to an industrial controller or change its configuration. Thus there is a growing onus to adopt integrated cyber security solutions and implement monitoring software to protect vital equipment from nuisance attacks and blackmail attempts by criminals.

The impact of increased automation and other key components of Industry 4.0 are ranked and assessed critically in the new Smithers Pira study The Impact of Industry 4.0 on Packaging to 2023 . This essential business-strategy tool is now available for purchase.