Adapting production machines for sustainable packaging

According to Omron Automation, one of the biggest challenges facing fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) producers is how to adapt their production to new forms of sustainable packaging.

The key to making a painless transition lies in the use of technology like the ‘black box’ technologies that no one sees, like algorithms, motion control, programming, sensors, and Artificial Intelligence. Combined, they enable flexible and future-proof automation solutions that are intelligent and dynamic enough to cope with whatever they encounter.

One example is the development of flexible films used in form, fill and seal (FFS), flow wrapping and pouch making. They are a huge focus area for innovation. Not only brands looking to switch from rigid to flexible formats, but those wanting to move to more eco-friendly films. Switching strategies range from downgauging to thinner films, using recyclable monolayer films, biodegradable films, paper films or more recycled content.

Sustainable packaging

Most packaging machines in operation today will not accommodate any of these ‘new’ films. Their designers expected them to be running consistent virgin plastic films of a certain thickness. The challenges when adapting existing equipment to run emerging materials are film tension control and sealing. Thin films burn and tangle more easily, paper films tear, and films with a high recycled content vary between batches.

Even slight changes in film thickness can lead to uneven winding and unwinding, and increased tension on the film. Uneven tension causes defects during pouch forming and sealing, such as curling, ripping, folding or misalignment.

Omron addresses these issues through its innovative Film Tension Control System, which provides synchronised control of tension, feed and cut. This system is one of a series of ‘Function Blocks’ for optimising film processing in FFS machines. They devised a motion control algorithm for OEMs and system integrators to build this functionality into their machines.

Using AI in temperature control

In sealing, temperature control is a challenge as thinner films are susceptible to burning. Moreover, the variability of recycled films means running the sealing system at a constant temperature is also not practicable.

OMRON’s solution is to use AI to enable dynamic temperature control. Sealing bar sensors linked to an adaptive control system algorithm adjust the sealing temperature dependent on variability in the material.

Blow Moulding

AI dynamic temperature control also has value in a wide range of sustainable packaging applications involving heat and variable materials. For example, many organisations are opting for blow-moulding due to the complexity of producing lighter weight bottles incorporating recycled content. The same is true as producers move to more sustainable secondary packaging operations such as cartoning and palletising.

Moving to greener sustainable material is attractive to consumers, but not at higher prices or imperfect appearance. Moving to lower impact packaging is rarely simple but, thanks to advanced automation and control technologies that support flexibility, it is achievable.

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