In this article, we talk to Corey Cronin of Emerson, where he serves as Director of Business Development, Food & Beverage / Packaging.

Smart manufacturing practices can contribute to efficiency and sustainability in so many disparate areas of packaging that we turned to an expert like Corey to weave together a wide range of examples.

For example, a bottler’s carbon footprint could be significantly reduced with a simple solution: fill the bottles in the same plant where they are produced instead of shipping them to a different location to be stored and filled.

Another example is the use of smart sensors to detect for leaks more accurately and consistently than can be achieved using traditional methods.

Check out the interview to discover the entire panoply of sustainability solutions that Corey sets forth.

What are some of the major obstacles packaging companies currently face as they work to make their operations more sustainable?

Consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) face multiple, constant pressures to sustain profitability, improve tight margins and manage rising material costs. Consumer demand for variety and new products continues to grow, so fierce competition contributes to rapid changes in package designs and pressure to increase throughput. In addition, the knowledge, experience and productivity an older workforce took decades to cultivate is vanishing more quickly than it’s being replenished.

These pressures come when, at the same time, the importance of sustainability is more critical than ever. Packaging companies have critical goals for managing and reducing energy consumption, improving their carbon footprint and reducing waste and scrappage in their processes. To meet sustainability goals and address other significant challenges, CPGs seek new ways to apply technology to gain deeper insight into areas where they can correct waste and inefficiencies in their operations.

How can packaging companies better deploy and utilize technology to identify waste and inefficiencies that hinder their sustainability efforts?

Digital transformation is one of the most effective approaches to help today’s CPG companies solve sustainability challenges. Digital transformation gives CPG operations new understanding about where waste is happening in their manufacturing platforms and tools to control and correct those issues.

Digital transformation integrates multiple types of components and technology at every level of packaging operations. Intelligent sensors and valves generate critical data on asset performance, while smart protocol convertors release machine data in existing automation controllers and share it across all packaging lines.

Innovative software formats and organizes data into actionable insights and real-time information on machine health. The information is scaled to cloud-based analytical tools, giving packaging companies a more sophisticated understanding of energy usage, material consumption and scrappage patterns. By integrating intelligent floor-to-cloud solutions that automate and optimize packaging processes, CPGs can simultaneously improve sustainability, efficiency and productivity.

Why is reducing scrappage important to packaging companies, and how can automation technologies help address this challenge?

An estimated 169 million tons of trash end up in U.S. landfills each year; this waste includes high volumes of both primary and secondary packaging. Food and beverage companies recognize that reducing scrapped packaging generated during their operations can help reduce this volume.

CPG companies can reduce scrappage and waste through more precise automation control. One area ripe for improvement is bottle filling and sealing systems. There are complete filling control systems that improve filling speed and precision while maximizing floorspace in the line. These systems combine smart pneumatic control valves, flow meters and regulators to reduce the risk of accidental overfilling. Overfilling can cause spillages, as well as require expensive unscheduled production line stops, cleanout of contaminated production lines and disposal of overfilled containers.

Compact, automated mass flow meters allow for both fast and accurate filling control. By measuring filling volumes by mass, not weight, bottle filling can be accurate to 0.05%. This can prevent underfilled bottles from being rejected down the line and, therefore, decrease packaging waste.

Many packaging operations make extensive use of pneumatics systems. Are there ways that digital transformation technology can help improve pneumatics’ energy efficiency?

Upgrading pneumatic systems with smart digital technology is an effective and productive starting point to improve CPG sustainability and energy efficiency. In some factories, up to 30% of total energy use is consumed by generating compressed air. Unfortunately, up to a third of energy is lost due to leaks and inefficient processes that use more air than they need.

It’s common for many factories to check for leaks only periodically. This allows leaks to grow and wastes energy for extended periods of time. However, there are smart compressed air monitoring platforms that take a floor-to-cloud approach to address this problem at multiple levels. Smart sensors measure compressed air factors such as pressure, temperature, humidity, moisture and other data for real-time insight into compressed air circuit efficiency.

Once the data is captured, an edge device aggregates multiple data streams, pushes it to software and presents it on a dashboard so operators make informed decisions about maintenance and process adjustments. Companies that implement compressed air monitoring can usually reduce compressed air consumption by 20-30%.

Are there ways for CPG companies to save energy by reimagining the structure and layout of their production lines?

Sometimes, the fastest way to save energy and improve sustainability can also be the simplest. For example, the most widely used bottling product in the world is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which are typically produced using stretch blow molding (SBM) machines that make extensive use of both low- and high-pressure pneumatics to produce finished bottles.

Until recently, manufacturing PET bottles and filling them with beverages were two separate processes, often at two different locations. Many packaging companies — typically drink bottlers — are now purchasing “combo” systems that combine the SBM process with the bottling process in a single, uninterrupted production flow.

It offers greater bottling efficiency and lets bottlers change the size and shape of bottles in response to changing market and customer demands. Equally important, combo production systems can significantly reduce a bottler’s carbon footprint with a single solution: fill the bottles in the same plant where they are produced, rather than manufacturing in one place and shipping to the bottling plant where they’re then stored and filled.

Are there ways that packing system technology providers can help CPGs use more sustainable packaging materials?

CPG companies that use plastic packaging are committed to a global effort to reduce the use of single-use packaging and boost the use of recyclable or bio-based plastics.

The liquid pouch packaging market, for example, is increasing its use of bio-based plastics (BBP) and biodegradable and compostable plastics (BDCP). However, expanding the use of this kind of packaging material creates challenges in spout and pouch sealing.

Producing reliable pouch packaging and sealing with BBP and BDCP requires much stricter sealing temperature and process control compared to traditional plastics. In response, companies are turning to high-throughput ultrasonic welding.

Manufacturers using ultrasonic welders can monitor welding parameters in real time, since ultrasonic welders provide multiple modes of digital, closed-loop control during the brief (less than 1 second) weld cycles.

The exact resonating frequency of ultrasonic tooling allows microscale adjustments in amplitude to fine-tune the heat generated at the weld interface. This gives manufacturers the ability to precisely control and track every weld input and seal quality parameter.

Clean-in-place (CIP) systems are a critical part of food and beverage packaging operations, helping ensure product quality and safety as well as regulatory compliance. Are there ways that digital technologies can help make CIP processes more sustainable?

Depending on the operation, it’s estimated that CIP processes use nearly 30% of a plant’s utilities, including energy and water. However, it’s often unclear exactly how much energy and media are consumed with each cleaning cycle. This could lead to more resources and time being used for each cycle than is necessary, resulting in wasted energy, water, steam, chemicals and thousands of dollars in downtime.

Some plants have installed time- or sensor-based cleaning procedures to start automating CIP process monitoring, often combined with legacy manual checking and reporting procedures that are less than efficient and don’t supply real-time awareness and usable data.

Technology suppliers like Emerson offer utilities and reporting solutions that combine sensor-equipped devices like pressure regulators and valves with CIP software to capture and analyze critical process data.

By tracking utilities, generating automated reports and comparing each cycle against an ideal-golden CIP, the CIP solution can help manufacturers improve reporting accuracy, reduce water consumption by 20-35% and save up to 20% of their time managing manual and semi-automated systems.

CPG companies, like many other industries, are experiencing the rapid retirement of experienced plant personnel. How can digital transformation help CPG companies stay on track with sustainability goals while managing these workforce challenges?

Skills gaps and labor force shortages can make it difficult for personnel to address all of the key priorities a packaging operation faces day to day. Stretched too thin, important steps to manage energy consumption or reduce scrappage can be easily postponed.

A floor-to-cloud approach to these challenges leverages a broad range of technologies to automate time-consuming manual processes. Capturing, formatting and presenting actionable data equips teams with real-time knowledge to make smarter, faster decisions that optimize energy and process efficiency.

In many operations, equipment issues are checked by having staff go from machine to machine or line to line to isolate issues, consuming valuable time and labor cost. Integrating smart sensors, valves and other tools support continuous monitoring and analytics of packaging machines and support platforms like compressed air systems. Operators see machine health and diagnostics on a single dashboard in real time. They receive timely alerts as issues start to arise, so interventions can be taken earlier, helping reduce waste, scrappage and inefficient energy use.

This data is also crucial to designing preventive maintenance programs that prevent failures and reduce unplanned downtime — at the line and plant level and across multiple facilities, due to this information being shared with cloud-based enterprise wide analytical systems.