Automation is an important component on the shop floor. Manufacturers have improved efficiency and consistency by turning repeatable processes over to robotics systems and other automated equipment, saving time, labor, and reducing errors. Post-production processes like packaging and shipping, however, often still involve a mix of manual and automated processes. This can create a bottleneck on the back end of your manufacturing or fulfillment operations that can erode efficiency gains made in the manufacturing environment.
Extending your automation efforts across these post-production operations can help increase your operational velocity, while also boosting productivity and accuracy. The post-production environment offers a number of opportunities to make a positive impact without creating significant disruptions during deployment. Here are three areas where a relatively small investment in automation can generate big efficiency gains:
As shipping costs rise and third-party logistics providers tighten up their requirements on weight and dimensioning, scales play an even more important role in getting your products to your customers. Whether you use pallet scales, counting scales, or highly sensitive laboratory scales, getting weight information on to your product or shipping labels is an important part of the manufacturing and shipping process.
Unfortunately, that process is often primarily manual. Scale information has to be keyed into the labeling program or other software before the label is created. Printer-to-scale integration, however, can eliminate this step. Scale and printer integration will allow your enterprise to effortlessly print labels and tags that include unique weight measurements for each product, carton, and pallet at the touch of a button, improving productivity.
By extending that integration into enterprise resource planning (ERP), warehouse management and other software systems, companies can also eliminate additional redundant data entry and associated errors while further improving label accuracy. In some cases, the scale information can combine lot or batch data, as well as which scale was used and by what employee. This provides an audit trail for the weight data that can be used to meet customer or regulatory compliance requirements.
Automated Barcode Scanning
While barcodes can help accelerate data collection processes, the fact that there are barcode labels on your products doesn’t mean you have fully automated those processes. If employees in your shipping or receiving area have to spend time moving product around to find the barcode and then scan it with a handheld device, you can still find room for improvement by eliminating unnecessary labor hours.
Handheld scanning is necessary in some applications, and barcodes will still provide benefits like fewer errors, improved productivity, and better visibility into the movement of inventory. For many manufacturing processes, however, scanning can be further automated by deploying fixed-position barcode scanners on manufacturing lines or in shipping or receiving lines where packages or products arrive in a predictable fashion and in standard orientations.
With fixed-position scanners, the barcodes are moved in front of the scanner instead of making employees put the scanner in front of the barcode. This eliminates time lost due to the variability of how quickly different employees can find and scan a label, and it increases the efficiency of the data collection process.
Since packages may move on a conveyor in a number of different orientations, omnidirectional barcode scanners can help ensure reliable scanning even without human intervention. Different variations of these scanners (similar to the ones used at retail checkout counters) are available:
- Laser-based omnidirectional scanners use a series of straight or curved scanning lines of varying directions in the form of a starburst or other multi-angle arrangement, which are projected at the barcode. One or more of them will be able to cross all bars and spaces in spite of the orientation.
- Imaging-based scanners (which are based on camera technology) also provide omnidirectional barcode scanning. In addition, image-based systems can enable machine vision options. Combined with machine vision software, these scanners can provide barcode verification as well as other types of quality control checks, all within a single system.
This level of barcode scanning automation improves efficiency and frees up employees to handle other value-added tasks, including responding to exceptions or performing other types of quality checks. Automated scanning also provides inventory and work-in-process visibility much faster than is possible in a manual scanning environment, and can enable customer or manager alerting applications as products pass through different production or shipping milestones.
Automated packaging can result in great gains in efficiency, particularly for large-scale manufacturers with a high degree of packaging variability. These systems provide better quality control and standardization across product lines.
Automation of these processes helps reduce product damage while ensuring consistency and helping manufacturers meet their customers’ requirements.
Autobaggers, including vertical form fill seal baggers and vertical bagging machines, can help manufacturers save money on shipping by lowering packaging and shipping costs. These machines can generally support any bag style at a lower cost than purchasing premade bags. Automation also greatly improves bagging efficiency and productivity on the line. Automated void-fill systems can produce air pillows other fill materials on demand, which accelerates the packing process.
You can even integrate high-speed thermal transfer printers or imprinters with baggers or polybag packaging systems to print directly on the poly bags. That can eliminate the need for a separate printing or labeling process, saving even more time. An integrated labeling/packaging solutions can also ensure that the right label is placed on the right package, reducing or eliminating shipping errors and related returns processing or customer chargebacks.
Automation doesn’t have to end once the product leaves the shop floor. By extending automation into packaging, labeling, scanning and shipping processes, companies can increase efficiency and productivity at a lower cost than similar efforts on the manufacturing line.
Mike Hess is a Sales Director at Imprint Enterprises.