An interview discussing trends and technology with Rodney Erickson, senior beverage account development director, Intelligrated.by Rick Lingle, Editor in Chief
Food & Beverage Packaging: One of the hot trends we’ve seen in the multipack market is for Retail Ready or Shelf Ready packaging. What influence have you seen for these formats?
Rodney Erickson: Many of our customers distribute through the club stores where a lot of those packages are sold right off the pallet. We need to make sure that the integrity of the pallet load always is compatible with their floor displays. Package sizes have changed considerably, going to smaller containers and thus more packages per pallet such as 36-count trays of bottles of water or other beverage or even for commodities such as condiments like ketchup. Conversely you’ll see small containers of beverage, 7½ and 8 ounce cans have become popular and the 2 x 6 “fridge pack” made its way on the scene about five years ago. The cost of materials and ingredients has gone up and so has the retail price at the store, but packagers try to make the price point as palatable as possible.
F&BP: We’ve heard that some packagers have taken sustainability too far to the point that unitized loads have become unstable. Have you seen such problems?
Erickson: Some customers that have used a corrugated tray with a 2½ inch-high sidewall eliminated the sidewalls and kept just the end flaps in a shrink-film multipack. And then they got rid of the tray altogether, only to revert back to a corrugated pad for stability when the clubs had stability problems.
F&BP: What about instability due to thin-wall bottles-almost to the point of functioning as “semi-rigid pouches”-being multipacked?
Erickson: We’ve seen that and where they have used liquid nitrogen to pressurize the bottle if it’s not a carbonated beverage. With bottled water, the water is filled almost to the top. There’s very, little airspace, which makes that bottle more rigid because it doesn’t compress.
F&BP: How has the role of the primary package changed over the years?
Erickson: We’ve always tried to anticipate what’s coming down the pike and that’s one of my primary functions with our company: To work with our key accounts and try and understand what they’re considering for new package sizes and carton sizes and other changes. Some things have taken off and continuous and some have been a short experiment, but they’re out there continuously.
F&BP: How willing are packagers to share their developments so Intelligrated can react in a timely fashion?
Erickson: It depends on the complexity of the package change, but they need to know what’s going to have to be done to their existing equipment to accommodate that. We try to build in enough features for a machine for some future product changes and/or we’ve made after-installation modification kits available. We’ve developed a hybrid palletizer that has robotic capabilities for flexibility, but it’s 80% conventional palletizer that the customers are used to.
The robots can adjust to a different pattern without a lot of mechanical adjusting. If there’s a customer that’s got a huge amount of package sizes, we think that a hybrid system combining robotics and conventional palletizing is a very good solution with the front end robotic and the layer forming and the layer stacking a traditional palletizer.
F&BP: How do you foresee what your customers are looking for down the road?
Erickson: We want to anticipate future parameters and have a grasp on both ends of the spectrum from what we feel are close to the maximum size package and the minimum size package. With multipacks, there’s a maximum size package by weight of how much can a consumer can physically lift up and put in a cart. This can be a multipack of six very large bottles or 36 small bottles. Sports drinks can be in quite large containers; some flavored waters and fruit drinks come in smaller containers. Using simple mechanisms, we can adapt our machinery to accommodate the size changes.
F&BP: What is that maximum pack weight?
Erickson: It approaches 38 or 40 pounds. A packager can have 36 cans in a “cube pack” format of 18 cans two layers high. We feel that’s about optimum for a consumer to take home.
F&BP: What are examples of upgrades you offer?
Erickson: For instance, if the customer has a machine that was setup for relatively large package sizes when you go to form a layer, when they convert to these smaller packages, we need to have more rows, more lanes to assemble a pattern. Sometimes we’ll add more lanes in the slat divider on the front of the machine. That’s not unusual-and now we’ve got customers that buy a framework big enough for future lanes to be added. They may not need it, but we’re encouraging our customers that if they are anticipating smaller package sizes that they buy the framework large enough that we can add them quite simply without having to replace the whole module.
F&BP: What are some of the changes on the electronics side that you’re seeing?
Erickson: With improved circuitry, the operator can select different patterns via the touchscreen panel even to the point to input the new dimensions and the software can indicate two or three compatible patterns for that package size. That’s a combination of servo technology as well as robotics. Now we’re also implementing that with more conventional machines. Some of the modifications for current machines may involve putting in a new programming hardware to be able to accommodate some of this advanced technology. While some of our retrofits to existing machines may involve a new circuitry, not just mechanical parts but may involve a whole new programmable logic controller (PLC).
F&BP: It almost seems ironic that the idea with all the sophisticated electronics is to make the equipment simpler to use. What’s the impact for operator training from these advanced technologies?
Erickson: We encourage training. We have a classroom facility in St. Louis that customers can visit or we can go to their facilities for training. There’s a varying degree of experience level at customers facilities too; it depends if the project is an expansion using all-new technology. We have a 24/7 customer hotline; customers can call in if they have a problem. We can provide them with recommendations. We also have a large group of service technicians that can go to customer sites and install the modifications or start up a new machine. This is very efficient. We also are trying to simplify things as much as practical.
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