The use of plastics in consumer goods manufacturing is under more scrutiny than ever. Omron outlines some fresh automation strategies for more sustainable packaging


lastic and sustainability – at first glance, these terms do not seem to fit together. Plastic waste, mainly single-use plastics

and microplastics, polluting the sea is an issue that has become increasingly the focus in recent years. Researchers at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have found that there are currently an unimaginable 12 to 21 million tons of microplastics in the Atlantic – a huge danger to animals and humans. However, when packing and transporting food and other consumer goods, there is no real alternative that is more hygienic, safer, efficient and cheaper. What is certain is that companies urgently need to find ways to promote sustainability and environmental protection, while still packaging their goods and containers reliably and safely. Smart packaging lines, robotics, technological innovations and AI can support this. With the world eagerly awaiting the UN’s

COP26 conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2021, the issue of sustainability is gaining momentum. More and more companies are taking environmental measures, planning green actions and developing innovative approaches – also when it comes to plastics. And while the amount of plastic packaging produced, used and disposed of worldwide urgently needs to be reduced, it is also important not to ignore the advantages of plastics over alternatives in the context of balanced sustainability. Plastics in packaging include a few benefits

which cannot be dismissed. For the producer, these polymers provide a safety barrier to protect contents. Furthermore, they are easy to shape and convenient for transportation. Consumers on the other hand want convenience, choice, product integrity, value and more sustainable practises. Here it is important to remember that plastic still does have environmental advantages over other alternatives like metals or glass, which can be very energy-intensive to produce, ship and


recycle. And even though unpackaged food is a trend in some areas, in many places there is no viable alternative to plastic packaging for cost, hygiene and safety reasons. Currently, producers are balancing between

making commitments to reducing overall usage of plastics whilst maintaining product sales and safety, so we’re seeing lower levels of plastic used within the container or packing. Manufacturers are focusing on light-weighting to reduce plastic packaging. Moreover, there are changes in the composition of the plastics so they can be more easily recycled. Another development is designs like pouches or resealable bags. In order to be more sustainable and meet customer needs, manufacturers should develop new packaging strategies based on the four “R’s”: reduce, recycle, reuse and redesign. Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes

of plastic waste every year. That's equivalent almost to the weight of the entire human population. Approximately 20% of total packaging waste materials are plastics, about the same as glass and less than paper or cardboard. Sadly, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only a very small fraction of the plastics produced is recycled, approximately 8.4%. And despite all the discussions about more sustainability, plastics production is set to increase for decades to come, with some predicting a doubling of production by the year 2050.

So isn’t there any regulation at all, you might

ask? Often mentioned are the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including climate action and responsible consumption and production. There are also many and diverse regulations in place globally, all pushing for a reduction of plastic usage within our society. Some examples are the bans on single-use plastics in the EU. In other regions, the US, India and China have implemented their separate plans. Global consumer goods producers have been making commitments for some time as well.

Six challenges and opportunities for automation Manufacturers need to develop new strategies and find innovative technology to overcome the hurdles mentioned above – with automation as the foundation of all these plans, as the following examples show: 1. Sealing: Real-time monitoring – How can

a manufacturer be sure that the packaging is fit for purpose in the event of material changes? Can the manufacturer still use the same equipment and configurations that it uses today? For example, a vertical form fill seal machine (VFFS) has many variables such as speed, pressure, synchronisation, temperature and more. Very close control of these variables is required to achieve the correct result. How can the result be tested in real time? To be able to monitor multiple variables in real time, such as material thickness, contact time, temperatures and more, the manufacturer needs an automation solution that can collect all applicable data via common communication methods “at the edge” (at the machine level). In addition, a facility to share and visualise is required. In the future, more and more AI will be embedded in a control system, to help in the development of self-optimising machines. 2. Forming: High-performance vision

systems minimise faults – For producers of trays, bottles or packs who are both trying to

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