Packaging Market: Important Role for Vacuum Handling Technology

The German packaging machinery industry is known for its high specialization and outstanding export quotas. A growing variety of packaging types and materials has led to an increase in the demand for flexibility and efficiency of the machines. This also has implications for automation and handling technology—in particular, for the optimization of process chains. The J. Schmalz GmbH firm recognized this development early and offers an extensive product range of economical vacuum solutions for transporting products with varying properties quickly and reliably.

The suction cup SPOB1f is suitable for thinner products from the food industry and provides particularly dynamic handling.
The thin sealing lip conforms perfectly to any work piece contour and ensures reliable handling.
The Area Gripping System FXP handles cardboard boxes reliably, an intelligent vacuum and pressure switch provides greater transparency in packaging processes.
The layer gripping systems SPZ feature the ability to handle entire product layers automatically.

If they are correctly packaged, products such as candy, dairy products, baked goods, meat, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics will arrive to the consumer intact. Schmalz has decades of experience providing vacuum handling solutions in the packaging industry and operates in a stable sector: According to the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), packaging machine production grew by 4% between 2013 and 2014. The export of German machines increased for the fifth year in a row in 2014 to a total of almost eight billion euros—3% more than in the previous year. 

This positive trend continued in 2015, as orders rose by 12% in the first quarter of the year compared to that of 2014. Germany is the undisputed world champion of exports: In 2014, German domestic mechanical engineering specialists produced foreign exports worth 35.2 billion euros, equating to a 23% worldwide share, followed by Italy (16%), the USA (12%) and Japan (10%). Market research institute the Freedonia Group estimates further increases in demand until 2022 by a yearly average of 4.5%. Turnover in the packing machine sector is currently expanding considerably faster than production volume. While the same number of machines are being produced, a larger turnover is being achieved. Experts attribute this fact to the trend toward higher quality machines, which are, for example, equipped with integrated quality and process control or run with continuous energy monitoring.

Brand differentiation demands highly flexible packaging solutions

Competition and price pressure are high and product changeover times are becoming ever shorter, especially in the consumer industry. This affects the design and type of packaging as well as the flexibility of the machines. Identical or similar contents are often packaged in different materials as a result of brand differentiation. This poses a challenge for handling technology: The machines need to have highly flexible designs to adjust to the frequent changes in package formats. For the operator, it is important that the installed machine components can be easily and flexibly parameterized with the controller. Meanwhile, a whole range of developments influence the packaging itself. In the convenience food sector, for instance, easy-open packaging with integrated cooling or heating pads are in demand. In the higher price ranges, high-quality surfaces with special pigmentation effects or soft textures are popular. Sustainability concerns require materials that are particularly light or biologically degradable. Resource efficiency is also an important aspect affecting the machine components: They must work for as long as possible without requiring maintenance and consume little energy. Demographic changes and the increasing proportion of single households in Germany are influencing packaging sizes and necessitating easy-open packaging.

The advantages of vacuum technology in the packaging industry

From the point of view of the vacuum specialist Schmalz, vacuum solutions must cater to a wide range of packaging types. At the same time, it is important to cover the widest possible range within each product group: For example, a vacuum suction cup should be able to handle many various qualities of cardboard or different types of bag packaging. This reduces the amount of testing work for the user and increases process reliability.

High process reliability and economic efficiency are currently among the main requirements of the packaging industry. Vacuum technology often accounts for only a small proportion of machines but it is still a core elementwithout it, reliable functioning of the entire process would cease Manufacturers of packaging machines are often special-purpose machine engineers and so they seek an experienced partner with more process knowledge who can present tailor-made solutions for the application. For this reason, Schmalz offers a packaging-specific range of products.

Using vacuum technology for handling offers clear advantages: For instance, it is significantly more flexible than gripping with pneumatically powered clamps. Due to the rising number of types and sizes of packaging, system operators would be forced to change gripping heads several times a day when using mechanical grippers. Furthermore, they would have to use a high number of different configurations in order to complete different orders. In addition, vacuum handling is very quick: Pick and place applications today process well over 100 candy or granola bars per minute, for example.

Packaging specialist Pira International lists paper and cardboard as the most commonly used materials worldwide, followed by hard plastic, plastic film, metal, glass and wood. Of the many types of packaging such as folding cartons, bags, vials, syringes, bottles, food cans or beverage cans, bags are showing especially dynamic growth. 

For bag packaging, Schmalz offers the new  tubular bag suction cup SPOB1f, among other products. This solution is suitable for thinner products from the food industry and provides particularly dynamic handling. Vacuum components are compact, which is another advantage over mechanical grippers: Grippers need much more space beside the product so that they can grip it from the side. On the other hand, vacuum suction cups, such as the SPOB1f, pick up the workpiece from above. Particular caution is necessary with sensitive workpieces such as chocolates and candies. The use of vacuum technology is also advisable in this case, as it is particularly gentle. The user sets the holding force required for the individual workpiece using the vacuum level. This makes is possible to handle products such as vials, cookies and film-wrapped crackers in a reliable yet gentle way.

Schmalz has developed a new suction cup made of metal detectable silicon, which is specially tailored to the needs of customers in the food industry. This solution helps prevent the contamination of food products.

Besides suction cups for handling food, vials, syringes, cardboard boxes and bags, the product range also includes vacuum generators like the basic ejector SBPL. Thanks to efficient eco nozzle technology, this vacuum generator provides a high suction rate for short evacuation and cycle times. It is suitable for the handling of porous workpieces, such as cardboard boxes, packaging materials or insulating materials. Whats more, Schmalz offers the energy-efficient ejector module ecoPump for decentralized vacuum generation directly at the suction cup.  Vacuum sensors and valves also make up part of Schmalzs portfolio. 

Schmalz has vacuum components that can easily read out process-relevant information and visualize it for optimal system monitoring. The compact terminal SCTSi is one such example: With just one cable, up to 16 vacuum circuits can be individually controlled and monitored. The terminal communicates with the controller of the system via IO-Link. Moreover, important process information can be read out with a smartphone or a tablet using NFC technology. This information provides important details to the user about the machine performance, energy consumption, wear and more. Reliable process monitoring enables preventative maintenance, for example, with the goal of further increasing the availability of the machine and optimizing the packaging process.

Besides the single vacuum components, Schmalz offers completely configured vacuum systems. They facilitate a dramatic increase in productivity in automated processes. The area gripping system FXP, for instance, is suitable for handling a wide range of workpieces, regardless of their size, shape or material. With the FXP, users benefit from a significantly higher suction force in comparison to competing products on the market. In addition to the area gripping systems, Schmalz offers the high-performance layer gripping systems SPZ for warehouses and intra logistics. They are available in three designs and feature the ability to handle entire product layers automatically. The layer gripping system even moves incomplete layers, mixed layers, intermediate layers and pallets without difficulty. If desired, it can also be operated in extremely low temperature applications down to -30° C. 

And with that, Schmalz covers the entire process chainfrom primary and secondary packaging all the way through to palletizing tasks such as end-of-line palletizing. 

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