Building on familiar demands, packaging lines will evolve to address the need for product safety as well as consumer confidence. According to PMMI, respondents to recent surveys classify vision as one of the most note-worthy developments in packaging technology.
There are a number of trends that are shaping the landscape of vision integration into packaging lines.
Consumer-driven standards. Consumers are a driving force behind requirements and regulations due to the transparency of information available in today’s connected world. They hold influence over the retailer—such as Walmart, Target and Costco—driving codes of practice that packaging companies are tasked with following. Product placement is dependent on implementing inspection measures that meet food safety, such as ensuring printed information is present, legible and accurate. It is also dependent on inspecting for product integrity—ensuring there are no label tears, wrinkles or flagged edges. Integrating vision systems at critical control points protects the consumer as well as the level of confidence the consumer has in a given retail channel.
Designed for traceability. There are a myriad of laws, acts, directives and regulations that add pressure at multiple levels for forward and backward traceability throughout the supply chain. The packaging industry has taken the lead in this effort with the adoption of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA); it includes an action plan to achieve whole-chain traceability and recordkeeping beginning in 2016. Other industries, most notably pharmaceuticals, will follow suit with the Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA) by the end of 2017. Vision systems in conjunction with some kind of SCADA, MES or ERP system, collect data from barcodes and 2D matrix codes to apply and store information as products move through the supply chain.
Improved integration capabilities. Centralized control for equipment and packaging has gained momentum in recent years. This has provided for the evolution of modular equipment and its ability to integrate more effectively onto a packaging line. Add-ons, such as vision systems or vision sensors, can be seamlessly added upstream to detect non-confirming products at the earliest point possible or further downstream to ensure labels or markings match the contents of the package itself.
Functionality in harsh environments. Allergies relating to mislabeled products are the number one cause of product holds and recalls, which can negatively impact brand, market share and ultimately profitability. Processing companies have taken precaution by implementing harsh washdown protocols to prevent cross-contamination. This has prompted packaging companies to integrate equipment and components that can operate in this type of environment. We are now seeing food-grade acceptable vision systems on packaging lines, with stainless steel components, increased IP ratings as well as NEMA-rated enclosures.
Color imaging applications. Applications in packaging that require color recognition are growing in abundance. For example, coding and markings that are printed on labels are often printed in different colors. This poses a challenge for conventional grayscale vision systems in that different lighting is often required to read the different colors. A color vision system will be able to read any color of text or marking with white light. Color vision is also used for inspecting the filter paper used in single-serve coffee machines. It can tell the difference between defects such as holes in the paper and acceptable variation such as slight discoloration that could not be distinguished by grayscale vision.
Below are guidelines for choosing the right vision system, which should be future-proof to withstand amendments to regulations.
Choose your partner wisely. Consider investing time up front to find a partner that understands your environment, your application and the regulations affecting your industry as well as your market. The right partner will provide training and service—not to mention a single point of contact to handle any future requirements or adjustments in packaging or labeling. If you do not select the correct partner up front, you will find yourself investing more time and expense than you anticipated while trying to conform their vision solution to your needs.
Know your application. Careful analysis of the factors affecting your application can make the difference between a successful integration and one that experiences needless downtime. Once you know these factors, it will be easier to choose which vision system is best for your application. The key factors to consider include:
- Types of materials or substrates on which codes and markings are printed
- Speed of the application or throughput rate
- Consistency and readability of print quality on labels or markings
- Frequency of change-overs based on customer preference or geographic location
Focus on an integrated solution. A high-functioning integrated solution should match your minimum application and runtime needs. Select a total solution that includes core capabilities such as vision, software and network communications and can offer synchronous control of all your machine network devices.
Consider overall compatibility. Confirm compatibility of your vision system with existing equipment on your packaging line, such as pick and place robots. You should also confirm compatibility with your processes, as both equipment and processes work hand-in-hand to ensure compliance.
Consider the value in versatility. How versatile is the vision system? Are you choosing a flexible system that can quickly and seamlessly handle new packaging substrates or configurations—which are changing faster than ever as a result of mass personalization and geo-targeting? The value is in whether the vision system you are considering is versatile enough to perform change-overs without disrupting throughput.
Ensure you can integrate your data. Make sure the vision system you choose integrates well with your control system on the plant floor; and your control system is well-integrated with your enterprise-level system for data storage and analytics, enabling good traceability and recordkeeping practices.
Know your system’s speed. Select a system that can process data according to the optimum running speed on your production line. Your vision system should add value to your initiatives, having a positive impact on output and profits.
Know the total cost of ownership (TCO). While the initial cost is a significant factor, the total cost of ownership has the most impact on your budget over time, as well as the effect on your supply chain relative to your production. Make sure to consider the impact of all costs—energy, maintenance, repairs, parts replacement and service—before adopting a particular vision system.
Invest in training. The real barrier to effective vision integration is knowledge. Make sure all your MRO personnel have knowledge of the vision system and its software. Utilize vendor-offered training to gain detailed knowledge of the vision system and its core components. This investment will pay off in reduced downtime.
Take precautions to protect your investment. Ensure your vision system is mounted correctly and well-guarded. Harsh environmental conditions such as shock and vibration can disrupt required functionality. Taking the proper precautions to mount and secure your vision system will mitigate concerns, ensuring functionality remains intact throughout packaging.
Vision technology has reached a point that exceeds what packaging industry experts projected as a distant promise even a few years ago. It is no longer viewed as a research project, but as a mature tool for packaging automation—from upstream to downstream production. Today’s vision systems and software have made tremendous advances that improve precision, robustness and ease of use. They improve quality, reduce downtime, cut scrap/waste and increase profitability.