canning line automated canning line at a brewery

You’re a small brewery that’s interested in growing your distribution process. Or perhaps you’re a bigger brewing operation that’s looking to improve the packaging setup that you already have. Either way, as an owner, CEO, or production plant manager, your primary focus is your bottom line – which means you’ve likely been playing with the idea of investing in some packaging equipment to streamline the process of getting your product to market.

“But wait,” you say. “Aren’t automated packaging machines expensive? Fussy? Overkill? Are those shiny new technologies really capable of saving me money and headache in the long run?” Your packaging strategy influences many parts of your product line, and thus, your business growth. Growing revenue and reducing costs are directly associated with the way you package and ship your beer, so giving some attention to the way you’re getting things done can really drive results for your business.

The initial costs associated with purchasing new equipment and employee training may intimidate some companies thinking about automated solutions. However, there are some pretty powerful advantages to automated packaging, and with new technology coming out at a steady pace, it is easier than ever to automate more and more steps in your packaging process.

Let’s look at some of the ways that automating your packaging system will make your life easier – and improve your bottom line in the process.

1. Figure out where to save money

The upfront costs of installing packaging automation can be substantial. That’s no secret. When you’re considering a purchase like this, it’s important to calculate what your current costs are in terms of staffing, product defects, production speeds, etc. Without an understanding of your current costs, and the potential value of increased production speeds that an automated packaging system would bring, it’s tough (if not impossible) to get a realistic idea of how quickly your investment will pay for itself. Thankfully, the cost is simple to calculate, and there are a handful of ROI calculators out there that you can use to figure out the numbers for your specific brewing operation.

When you have a high-level view of the data, you will be able to see which processes would benefit from automation. Does a minor problem or delay in one area of your line lead to a total shutdown every time? You may need to add accumulation or additional conveyance to smooth out production.

. Are your date codes inaccurate or difficult to read? An efficient and accurate date coder will save you loads of time and re-printing, not to mention liability created by having illegible date codes on your product. Being able to identify weak and slow spots in your line is a valuable tool when you are selecting your automation equipment. An expert in packaging line automation (like Ska Fabricating) can also help you identify these trouble spots.

And once you have your equipment installed, tracking this information and seeing the monetary benefits of having an automated packaging line becomes a lot easier. Engineers of packaging automation systems are making the design of HMI’s (human-machine interfaces) a high priority. These advanced HMI’s make it easy for packaging managers and line workers to access information relevant to each individual machine and packaging line process. With access to these analytics, packaging teams are equipped to make the most informed decision possible regarding tweaks to the line. Simplified HMI’s with today’s equipment also mean less training time for workers to be able to operate the machines successfully, which will reduce your labor costs. Introducing a data-driven, automated packaging system to your process will reduce product cost and increase the capacity to create more products, making it possible to manufacture more products to sell at a lower cost per case, ultimately boosting your profit and (you guessed it) your bottom line.

2. Keep up with demand

The inability to keep up with demand is one of the most popular reasons that businesses look into packaging line automation. If you are a growing brewery, you may find yourself struggling to keep pace with the demand that you have now. Will you be adding new products in the coming year? Do you anticipate a significant amount of growth? Just imagine what might happen when you actually reach your growth potential and beyond! If you want to be able to meet your future goals, it’s important that you be prepared.

If it’s on your mind, you should start the automation journey now – at least when it comes to research and paying attention to areas that your line could be improved. Waiting too long to explore your options could be catastrophic for a burgeoning business. Failing to fulfill purchase orders and missing targets will hurt your relationship with distributors, retailers, and customers. Retailers can’t afford to hold empty shelf space for your product, and in today’s highly competitive market it’s often easy for them to give that space to another beer that’s more consistently available.

Without the proper machinery, running to hit deadlines and targets would mean asking your team to work harder (if that is even possible with your current operation), which will add stress, leading to mistakes and potential turnover on your production team. Any hiring manager knows that the constant cycle of hiring and turnover has costs and aggravations that go along with it, not to mention the time spent interviewing and training. That headache in itself may be enough reason to consider automated packaging.

When you have retailers to supply, you can’t afford to waste time with mistakes or bottlenecks. Even if you have machines on your line now, you may not be able to run them at full capacity because a manual packaging process earlier or later in the line isn’t able to keep up. You may also run into issues with quality and mistakes being made when a packaging line worker is rushing to keep pace with the line, which is another opening for unnecessary downtime. By automating the packaging process, you are able to remove these constraints, lessen the scope for packaging errors, create a consistent and predictable flow throughout, and improve your production speed overall.

In some cases, you may even be able to justify choosing automation when there is a decrease in demand as well. If you see or expect a decrease in demand in the markets that you serve, automation can actually save you money when it comes to overall operation costs.

3. QCQA

To err is human. Any manual process that you have on your line is much more susceptible to quality and accuracy errors that ultimately increase your overall operating costs. Automated packaging is specifically built to eliminate these mistakes – their very design guarantees consistent quality, more accuracy, and greater efficiency.

Quality needs to start at the beginning of the packing line and continue on through pack-off. For example, most manual processes for “cleaning” cans and bottles are shockingly unsanitary. Implementing some form of vessel rinsing is a great way of insisting on quality from point A of your packaging line.

Having a brewery worker sit at the beginning of the filler hand-loading bottles or cans onto the line is just one more pair of hands on your clean containers – plus, it is bound to create bottlenecks, not to mention take a toll on that worker’s morale. If you are buying sleeved cans or are canning over 15 cpm, you would be better off having a depalletizer do that work.

Under 50cpm, you could probably get away with manual weight checks. But over 50cpm, you may want to start thinking about automating that function with low/high fill detection and rejection. Under and overfilled containers not only cost you money through wasted product or dissatisfied customers, they typically have higher levels of oxygen, shortening the shelf life considerably.

Whether you are shipping your beer to warehouses, stores, or selling straight out of your taproom, having automation on your line is the ideal way to keep your brewery loyalists receiving their purchases on time without totally burning out your production room employees. Overworked production line workers are much more likely to make mistakes while packaging, which will annoy your buyer – whether it’s an individual grabbing a 6-pack or a store making a bulk purchase.

When you’re selling something like beer, it’s crucial that you provide the same product every time. Have you ever cracked a can of your favorite brew just to find that it isn’t the taste or quality you were anticipating? It’s the worst – and you can be sure that your patrons will notice any inconsistencies. A consistent experience is what all loyal customers crave, and investing in machinery that can take human error out of the equation and provide a dependable, efficient packaging process will result in fewer returns, happier customers (and employees), and more repeat business.

4. Speed

When you think of automation, the first thing that probably comes to mind is speed. Of course, this is a primary aim of any type of automation – to take a task that requires time and labor and turn it into a predictable, mechanical function. When you are building or operating a packaging line for your brewery, speed is the first thing that you calculate. How many barrels are you producing and how does that translate into kegs? Cans? Bottles? What capacity will your line need in order to fill the needs of your customers and reach the distribution goals you’ve set? How long do you need to run your line to hit your numbers?

A common goal of a well-designed automation implementation is to increase line speed. Depalletizing cans into your filler will reduce the time spent loading containers by hand and reduces stoppages when changing pallets. A reliable filler can purge and fill multiple cans at a time. Labelers can apply labels to dozens or hundreds of filled cans per minute. Fill detection and rejection systems can identify faulty cans and remove them from the line with more accuracy and at a much quicker pace and much more reliably than a line worker could. Paktech applicators and cartoners can create 6-packs out of loose cans in half the time of a manual process. Speed is the name of automation’s game, and a faster line produces more product, with fewer operators, and the more product you sell, the more money you’ll make. But increased speed on your line can be more beneficial to your business than simply giving you greater output.

Having a faster line can mean that you don’t have to have production days that last as long as they currently do; it can also mean that you can get done in 1 day what might have previously taken 2-3. The less time you spend running your packaging line, the less you’ll need workers to man the line, the fewer times you need to make a connection to a tank, and the more consistent your finished beer will be. In steps of the process that demand highly repetitive motions, having a machine responsible rather than a worker makes it possible to both increase productivity and reduce workers’ risk of injury. You would be better off sending that staff to work on tasks that require human workers or simply benefit from the human touch. You may even be able to eliminate a position on your line – winning you savings that range anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 or more annually depending on your payment plan. We’ll get more into use of labor and labor costs later on.

While increases in speed can differ based on packaging types and processes, all packaging lines can take advantage of the constant output and consistent pace offered by automated systems.

5. Reduce Labor Costs & Better Use the Labor you Have

Employing people to run your brewery is one of the best parts of running one. You can assemble your dream team, inspire your employees with a sense of passion and purpose, and create a kick-ass community around your brand. But employing people can be expensive. When you consider labor costs, they don’t simply include hourly wages, but social security, medicare, worker’s comp, unemployment, sick leave, and vacation time. If you only package occasionally, you may even need to rely on untrained temp workers which carry a higher overhead, or even volunteers which bring their own legal liabilities and headaches. On the other hand, automated packaging equipment can typically be run by many fewer operators. Compare that annual employee cost of $25,000 to $50,000 mentioned earlier to the cost of purchasing automated equipment. In a lot of cases, the equipment may pay for itself in a year or two from labor savings alone.

Now, of course, the purpose of automated packaging is not to eliminate the jobs of hardworking people, and that doesn’t necessarily need to happen when you upgrade or build your line. Rather than cutting someone out, you can place them somewhere that they can focus on higher-value work. Instead of the drudgery of loading cans or bottles by hand, an employee can learn the ins and outs of cellar work, logistics, or inventory management. Adding value elsewhere in your business is an undeniable benefit of optimizing your production line. It will lead to happier staff, a better customer experience, and in turn, greater sales.

Those working on the packaging line are often working long shifts and spending their time repeating tasks that quickly become boring and monotonous. Bored employees can unintentionally slow the pace of your operation, and the production output can decrease to a pace that is much less efficient and effective than it should be. Not to mention that when staff are bored or unengaged, their concentration tends to trail off, and that is when mistakes happen.

A lack of focus can lead to defective products or even safety issues. These kinds of repetitive, simple tasks are better suited for a machine – while the humans can be reassigned to other areas of the business where they can be more engaged and experience more job satisfaction. It’s also a great way to show your staff that they are important and valued by actively working to improve their on-the-job safety.

6. Reduce waste

Waste can manifest in many ways when you’re running a packaging operation. You can waste product, time, utilities, resources that you’ve purchased to package your product, and every example will make a dent in your bottom line.

Damaged and dirty containers aren’t suitable for filling. If you are taking in pallets of containers for filling, having a forklift or pallet jack to move them is the least that you can do to make sure that they have safe transport from freight to your packaging line. Installing a depalletizer can help you save time and money loading cans onto your line – and having your cans or bottles protected in a metal cage virtually eliminates the chance that you have a collapsing pallet (which we all know is one of *the* most frustrating things that can happen on packaging day). If you’re filling glass, the threat is even greater if you have bottles breaking on the production floor. It’s a pain to clean up, and an even bigger pain to step on. Buying these vessels in bulk is budget-friendly, but losing even a dozen from a pallet can impact your output.

Manual processes can also lead to more material waste than automated packaging processes. Line workers can contaminate, damage, or drop containers, and use more material than necessary when cartoning and packaging your product. They are also inherently less precise than a machine. Automation is much more exact, the equipment uses fixed amounts of material to get you the most bang for your buck. The key here is consistency and minimalism, and using automated packaging equipment is perfect for that.

With the aforementioned HMI’s present on the machines, you’re also able to monitor metrics for product waste and damaged goods throughout your production process. This information makes it possible for you to identify the cause of these inconsistencies or damages and tend to them in a timely manner, as well as giving you the ability to identify areas where you can reduce your packaging waste.

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Tooling up for automated packaging of your beer is an expensive and necessary undertaking in your journey to becoming a fully operational brewing facility with the ability to service consumers clamoring for your product in a growing marketplace. The longer you put this off, the more you are spending without need. There are temporary or transitional packaging services you can use like contract packaging services or mobile canning or bottling services but, in the long run, having your own packaging line saves you in packaging expenses and gives you much greater control over the quality of the packaged nectar you worked so hard to create. If you want to learn more, chat with one of our reps about what you’re thinking.