From fertilizers to field grains, there is a wide array of things falling into the ‘agricultural products’ category. But they all have one thing in common; the farmers, production plants and storage facilities that handle these products can benefit from the automation of the packaging system which fills bulk containers.
By 2013 the lawn, garden and agricultural products bulk packaging industry is estimated to have a demand of $240 million. Intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) will be the majority of containers used for high volume transport, partly because they offer lower long-term cost, and higher re-usability and performance advantages.
Filling all of these containers with their respective products consumes mass amounts of time and energy, and can present serious risks to workers. Automation of the packaging process will oftentimes relieve many of the risks associated with handling bulk amounts of agricultural products. Which brings us to 10 reasons for automating bulk Ag packaging that you can’t ignore:
10. RISK ELIMINATION
The sheer volume of product being moved can present a hazard to workers who manually have to move filling machinery, use heavy equipment to lift product, or simply cap or close the filled containers. The more labor intensive the packaging process, the higher the risk of an accident. Automation reduces these safety risks by removing workers from direct contact with the product, allowing them to control the process from a safe distance.
Dust collection and exhaust ventilation systems attached to the automated equipment that fills the bulk packages further reduces exposure risks. Automation can also seamlessly integrate the conveying, lifting, filling and capping/sealing of containers to further reduce risk. If the entire packaging line is continuously communicating with itself, when the filler is jammed, the bucket conveyor can cease operation until the filler is fixed, stopping further problems from developing.
9. ADDED CONTROL
Automation of a packaging process allows for many degrees of precise control that are simply not achievable on a manual system. Line controls monitor your packaging process to make sure things are running smoothly, alerting operators to changes, problems or irregularities instantly. Various tolerances can be set on the line, with an alert being generated to the operator if the filling process is out of tolerance, and saving data about the irregularity for further review.
Lines can also automatically reject improperly filled containers, recycle product from defective containers, and weigh filled containers for filling accuracy. OEE and downtime tracking control systems can be automated to continuously display statistics on line or machine efficiency (MEE). These stats help plant personnel identify problems quickly, increase line efficiency, and can also feed into larger plant management programs, such as an MES.
Machine vision systems can also be added to automated lines. These camera systems can look for various defects in both product and packaging, preventing customer complaints and contaminated products. Machine vision systems can also be used to guide robotic fillers to openings on drums, totes, or other bulk containers for hands-free filling.
A single automated packaging line can fill different sizes and types of containers with a few simple adjustments. Pre-programmed and saved line settings allow for easy adjustments of line speed, conveyor widths, filling heights and speeds, and a variety of other line settings.
Lines can be designed to use the least amount of equipment and labor to achieve the highest filling speeds. For example, lines can be designed to ‘mirror’ each other, so that only one worker is required to run the same section of line for both lines, with that workers controls located in-between the two running lines.
A line could also be designed to utilize the same piece of equipment for two different containers or products simultaneously. For example, if you have a line filling rigid IBC’s mirroring a line filling 55 gallon drums, the same lifting/stacking equipment can be used to stack or load containers at the end of the line with correct timing controls.
6. REDUCED WASTE
Besides recycling back product salvaged from defective containers, automated lines help reduce waste in several ways. By ensuring containers are filled to a precise amount, automated packaging lines ensure containers are not shipped with extra product or lacking in product. Dust collection systems and other automated collection systems can catch product falling off the line that would otherwise be lost, and return it to the packaging system.
Most importantly, when a problem occurs during the filling process, the line will automatically notify the operator, and in some cases, cease operations of other equipment, keeping the process easily under control and preventing damaged or lost product due to equipment failure.
5. IMPROVED MAINTENANCE
Not only can the packaging line be automated, but it can be designed with self-cleaning systems that periodically clean machinery and sanitize equipment. Wastewater treatment systems can also be automated with the packaging line to neutralize any chemicals used during the cleaning process.
4. MINIMIZE REQUIRED SPACE
Automated bulk packaging lines typically eliminate the need for independent heavy equipment, such as bobcats, tractors or front-loaders, and take up much less space than manual filling operations. Through the use of well organized conveying systems and logical product flow set-ups, overall space required for the filling of bulk containers can be greatly reduced.
3. ELIMINATION OF THE ‘SILO’ EFFECT
The silo effect isolates a product supplier from customers and end-users by not providing consistent, quality products in safe packaging. Effectively, the packaging company separates themselves from customers by making recipients of product work adjust to things like improperly filled containers, incorrect amounts of product, damaged containers, compromised product or other problems.
By using an automated packaging line in conjunction with quality containers, product suppliers can avoid alienating customers and also more easily adjust to changing demands in container size, fill amount, or product quality
2. INCREASED FILLING SPEED
Automated packaging lines more product more quickly through the packaging process, increasing the speed of container filling. This increases the overall capacity of the operation by allowing more product to leave a facility in a given time period.
1. TIME AND MONEY
The two things that seem to run the world top the list of the reasons why automating the bulk packaging of agricultural products is a good idea. In every other reason, these two things are hinted at. What does reducing worker risk result in? Reduced costs, saving you money. What does increasing the filling speed of your line result in? Less time per container and ultimately more money as more product is produced, packaged and shipped in a year.
Automating the bulk filling of products will save you time and money in the long run. Is there a higher upfront cost to installing an automated line? Perhaps, but the return on investment of an automated packaging line is much higher than on a manual line when you consider labor costs, production capacity and overall efficiency.
And I know I already gave you 10 reasons you can’t ignore, but one final thing to consider is something you really can’t ignore: Government regulations. Industries are seeing more and more regulations every day, and oftentimes it is expensive and difficult to in compliance with these without using an automation solution. Not meeting these regulations can result in fines or in a complete shut-down of your operation. That really is something that cannot be ignored.
The bottom line is that automating bulk packaging saves time, money and can offer greater flexibility and control.
EPIC is a turnkey design/build company with services in many industries. EPIC can design and automate packaging lines and processing systems in house, which allows a much faster time to market than other design/build firms. We integrate lines that can package agricultural products into both bulk containers and consumer sized packages, and build process systems for the cleaning, mixing, or treatment of both dry and liquid agricultural products.
For information about modular process systems, please visitwww.epicmodularprocess.com
For information about production line integration, please visitwww.epiclineintegration.com