Seven practical tips for greener packaging production

Plastic is still the primary choice for packaging consumer goods. Versatile, durable, and incredibly adaptable, plastics are a family of remarkable materials with science and innovation in their DNA. Building on this, Omron supports packaging manufacturers on their sustainability journey with practical automation advice to manufacture greener plastics for consumer-packaged goods.

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There is no doubt that the sheer volume of plastic packaging needs to be curbed to relieve the environmental burden and avoid further damage to ecological balance, yet the advantages of plastics cannot be disregarded.

The Pew Charitable Trusts states that plastic pollution could be reduced by almost 80% by 2040. However, for this to succeed global efforts are needed to transform both the use of plastic and its processing and recycling.

When it comes to protecting packaged consumer goods, it is still difficult to pinpoint alternatives that are as versatile as polymers. They are flexible and easy to shape. They offer light-weighting and hygiene advantages as well as convenience for transportation and an appealing shelf presence.

Manufacturers on the other hand are looking for convenience, product integrity and value, while paying more and more attention to sustainability – the major shortcoming of plastic packaging. At the same time, plastic often scores points when compared to alternatives such as metals or glass because it requires less energy to produce, transport and recycle. Biodegradable packaging in personal care is indeed the trend. Nevertheless, in many places, there is no viable alternative to plastic packaging for cost, hygiene or safety reasons.

An artist’s impression of a sustainable automated pouch packaging line (Image: Omron)

Reduce, recycle, reuse and redesign

Reducing plastic, and rethinking packaging: this is the motto. Consumer goods companies are increasingly focusing on the four Rs. Packaging manufacturers are prioritising light weighting to contain the amount of plastic used (reduce). New plastic compositions enable easier recycling. In addition, there are innovative designs (redesign and reuse) – which is seeing less plastic and less waste in the final production stages. Furthermore, new packaging and container concepts are being developed. The four Rs reduce, recycle, reuse and redesign help manufacturers to become more sustainable and to better meet legal requirements and customer demands.

International initiatives to reduce plastic

A generic image of a person holding an Earth globe packaged in clear plastic packaging (Image: Omron)

There are increasingly stringent requirements to be met, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their provisions for increased climate protection, responsible consumption and greener production. In addition, there are numerous regulations aimed at reducing plastic consumption. Some examples are the bans on single-use plastic or strategies to reduce plastic bags in the EU, which are linked to Directive 2019/904 and have been implemented since July 2021.

Manufacturers have also made their commitments. Some are working to increase the amount of recycled PET in products. Others are striving to make packaging more recyclable or to revise the design of packaging and containers to use less plastic.

So where can you start and act? Automated and rationalised processes are the basis of all plans to operate more efficiently and sustainably.

The following seven recommendations show what to focus on:

1. Sealing: real-time monitoring

When material compositions change, companies must analyse whether machines such as vertical form fill seal machines (VFFS) can still maintain throughput and tension control without affecting the performance or quality of the final product. Only when you closely monitor and control the film, you’ll have a product that meets specifications, bypasses wrinkles and stretching, and does not negatively impact downstream processes.

2. Collecting data at the machine level and in real-time

Manufacturers need to always ensure that the packaging fulfils its purpose. Vertical form-fill-seal (VFFS) machines for example require many variables such as speed, pressure, synchronisation, temperature and more to be precisely controlled and tested in real-time. To monitor multiple variables such as material thickness, contact time or temperatures, the manufacturer needs an automation solution that can collect all applicable data ‘at the edge’ (machine level) via common communication methods. In addition, a facility for sharing and visualisation is required. The development of embedding AI into a controller will increasingly move towards self-optimising machines.

3. Forming: Innovative vision systems are key

Producers of bottles or packaging should always question what impact material changes might have on the integrity, colour or shape of the item. Automation solutions help to check these properties. When manufacturing a container, tight temperature controls in conjunction with physical effects such as pressure are required. To avoid defective items, it is advisable to employ powerful vision systems that have the necessary tools to detect problems such as micro-holes in plastics.

4. Wrapping: Controlling temperature and movement

Material changes can also affect performance. For example, are integrity and stability still guaranteed when wrapping? An application is needed that guarantees tight control of temperature and movement, maintains tension and ensures that a secondary or tertiary package is wrapped correctly.

5. Handling: Ensuring seamless communication between systems

As packages get smaller, manufacturers need to find out if handling operations supported by sorting or pick-and-place solutions are accurate and easy to repeat. One example is the placement of trays into retail-ready tertiary containers. A key aspect of handling is being able to ‘see’ the products entering the packaging area, as well as fast communication between the image processing system, conveyor belt and the robot – all while respecting the required throughput. In addition, the configuration of the robot may need to be changed due to new film materials.

6. Closing: High-resolution servos are a must

Weight reductions can change the size and shape of containers, affecting the sealing process and other related workflows. Additionally, forces and torques can lead to more waste or production downtime, which can cause further problems. Many sealing techniques such as capping rely on servo control. High-resolution servos connected via a machine network such as EtherCAT are therefore important.

7. Work with an experienced partner

Instead of undertaking the journey to more sustainability alone, it is advisable to bring strong partners on board. With its integrative technology, i-Automation, as well as globally available services, Omron supports packaging manufacturers in all the challenges mentioned in this article. International presence, a large network of integration and cooperation partners and the focus on the WHO’s sustainability goals make Omron an experienced and competent companion on this important journey.

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