The advent of Industry 4.0 in the packaging sector signals that the latest digital technology tools are being deployed, creating a rapidly evolving landscape. While technological innovations have been prevalent in most aspects of our daily life, packaging industry enterprise activities—including molders, fillers and packers—have been less data driven.
Tightening of quality standards and a drive towards sustainability is making data more critical for decision making. Automation is being increasing used to process large amounts of data, provide trends and mark out the outliers. To meet sustainability requirements, packaging initiatives began with lightweighting, followed by the introduction of recycled content and the development of biodegradable polymers. This led to a number of innovations in aseptic filling, high pressure processing, large cavitation molding, blow filling, nitrogen dosing, active bases, deeper grips and ergonomic branded shapes. These production techniques can benefit from digital technology and its related data to improve efficiencies and increase effectiveness.
Old machines receive a new lease on life as they become retrofitted with modern computer control and feedback technology. Processing machines are now able to provide real time data shot by shot, cavity by cavity of various parameters that are critical for making good quality parts in a narrower specification window. We in the midst of a digital age where data is used to discern trends and tackle problems before they manifest themselves.
The data acquisition technologies have improved via high resolution cameras along with transducers that look at processing attributes like injection or blow pressure profiles. Additional sensors can monitor part weight, thickness distribution, defects in sealing surface or pin holes in parts due to contamination. The data is now transferred from the machine to nimble computers that analyze and send instructions to robots. Parts that do not meet specifications are ejected without human intervention.
Operator’s role evolving
The job of the machine operator is also evolving with digital process assistants which function like a know-it-all expert. Continuous guidance is provided which maintains a tightly controlled process window that reduces scrap and warns every time the manufactured parts stray from the target specifications. The improved efficiency is also being implemented when machine changeovers are happening or there is an equipment malfunction. In a suitably-wired machine, the trouble spot is quickly identified and a virtual reality assistant guides the technician to a quicker fix that minimizes down time and keeps the equipment in good health.
The change is not limited to only equipment functionality but also impacts product development. The path for concept to commercialization is less trial and error now because simulation and other digital technologies are being used to improve speed to market. This is also opening the door to additional innovation as more package design and process optimization is being pursued with computer algorithms that could not be captured in prior analog methods involving human-penned solutions.
Companies are adopting a more digital-centric strategy as they rapidly evolve into a workforce conversant with use of digital tools so as not to lag behind or become obsolete. The upgrade to Industry 4.0 will be the harbinger of many exciting developments in the years ahead.
About the author
Sumit Mukherjee is the Vice President, Advanced Engineering Services, Plastic Technologies, Inc. He has more than 23 years of experience in preform and container design, materials characterization, process simulation and modeling, and finite element analysis (FEA) for package performance prediction.
About PTI Global
PTI Global is recognized worldwide as the preferred 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: www.pti-usa.com.