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PACK EXPO Innovations Report: Controls and Automation

PMMI Media Group editors fanned out across the many booths at PACK EXPO Las Vegas to bring you this Innovations Report. Here’s what they saw in the controls and automation categories.

Quick hits:

  • As software applications become more complex, libraries off off-the-shelf “low-code” pre-written code, supplied by controls manufacturers as well as third party developers, help expedite what used to be time-consuming and laborious coding.
  • The lines between pneumatics and electric controls are blurring, with many OEMs, CPGs, and integrators preferring the low cost and barrier to entry of pneumatics, but with the flexibility of servo.
  • Warehousing and shipping D2C packages via e-commerce involves logistics, fulfillment, and distribution. But ultimately, efficiency in this channel is impossible without accurate data on parcel dimensions. While older systems have been able to accomplish accurate dimensioning, they’ve been stationery. A new technology on a mobile tablet accomplishes the same thing as its predecessors, but now you can bring the dimensioning to the corrugated case, not the other way around. 

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Hello, I’m Matt Reynolds, chief editor of Packaging World, back with another edition of Take Five.

We’re ticking our way through our coverage of last fall’s PACK EXPO Las Vegas, which include robots, sustainability, pharmaceutical and medical device, controls and automation, and machinery. You can find our complete report in the January print edition of Packaging World, which mailed last month. We devote than 100 pages of PACK EXPO Las Vegas coverage in the 400-plus-page issue.

Now the print issue is the long form, but in this five-minute Take Five format, we like to boil down a few trends that stood out to us.

Among the trends apparent in the controls and automation category was the growing combination of pneumatic and electric automation, such as servo motion control. This was visible at both Emerson and Festo booths on the show floor.

Emerson showcased its smart pneumatics and servo motion systems that feature advanced analytics and edge computing to help users increase productivity and profitability, as well as meet sustainability targets. Emerson refers to this combination of pneumatics and servo motion as servo-pneumatics, a technology mix used widely in packaging applications. Pneumatic positioning is preferred by many OEMs and CPGs because of its budget friendliness and ability to reduce machine development time.

Highlighted at the show was Emerson’s Aventics AF2 smart flow sensor, used to identify when equipment is wasting energy and to prevent downtime. It measures air flow and pressure, as well as energy being used with readings displayed on the AF2’s built-in OLED screen. Statistical data gathered by the sensor calculates the cost of air being used by the equipment. Alerts can also be sent when acceptable operating parameters are not met to avoid unplanned downtime.

Meanwhile, Festo showcased its new Simplified Motion Series, or SMS, an all-in-one integrated-drive axes. The company says SMS represents an “engineering breakthrough” in that it combines pneumatics with electric automation. This breakthrough is based on how Festo’s SMS integrates ball screw axes, toothed belt axes, mini slides, electric cylinders, piston rod, and rotary actuators with an onboard servo drive.

Other trends evident at PACK EXPO Las Vegas included a shift toward low-code software approaches that are becoming increasingly common as software applications have increased in complexity. Whereas it once took thousands of labor hours to write the code for a software product line-by-line, doing so today is considered excessively costly and time consuming. Luckily, large, online libraries of pre-existing code have become commonly available as the software industry has matured, lowering the barrier to entry for developers.

The ctrlX Store, an online application marketplace for Bosch Rexroth’s ctrlX CORE automation control platform, is an example of this trend.

It features applications developed by Bosch Rexroth as well as by a growing number of third-party providers. According to the company, the primary goal of the marketplace is to help machine builders, packagers, and other manufacturers speed up time-to-market, while maintaining the ability to customize their offerings and differentiate themselves from their competitors. By making an ecosystem of turnkey applications available, the challenges that come with configuration, programming, and design, when setting up a line or engaging in product changeover, can be greatly reduced. Also, to enable as much flexibility as possible, end users writing their own applications can do so via a variety of programming languages or utilize low-code methodologies such as Google’s Blockly visual programming environment.

Another interesting automation technology stands to impact packaging specifically as it relates to e-commerce and direct to consumer applications. Efficiency in warehousing and shipping packages via logistics, fulfillment, and distribution is impossible without accurate data on parcel dimensions. After all, if an enterprise doesn’t have a constantly updated understanding of the dimensions of the corrugated cases moving through its systems, how can management hope to efficiently rack pallets full of those cases in its warehouses or efficiently cube out the trucks that take those cases through the distribution system?

Because such data is so essential, various dimensioning technologies have been developed, some of them quite sophisticated. But one drawback to much of what is out there today is that the dimensioning devices tend to be stationary. In other words, operators must bring a case or parcel to the device in order to measure it and enter that data into the system—an approach that is inherently inefficient and unnecessarily time-consuming.

xDIM Mobile Dimensioning Software addresses that shortcoming, and its developer, MobileDemand, used PACK EXPO Las Vegas to introduce it. The DIM is industry lingo for dimensions or dimensional weight.

xDIM is powered by mobile visioning software from MobileDemand companion company 4DMobile, so it quickly and accurately captures measurements with a simple point-and-click—wherever the case is located. The innovative cloud-based application provides rich data via a user-friendly dashboard that integrates with a myriad of enterprise resource management systems for deeper business analytics. And having successfully completed the National Type Evaluation Program evaluation, xDIM is qualified as Legal for Trade, meaning it is legally approved for establishing cost for services or hire based on measurement. 

Once again, these past five minutes represent only the tip of the iceberg of automation and controls coverage at PACK EXPO Las Vegas. But that’s all we have time for today, feel free to click around for a whole lot more coverage. 

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