Anyone can build you a packaging machine, but shelf ready packaging machinery isn't just about the machine itself, it's about what happens before and after you buy it.
The rise and rise of shelf ready packaging has been driven by the ever increasing demands of the retail sector for simplicity. Retailers want product packaging that is easy to find and move, easy to open and handle, easy to dispose of, and of course ultimately easy for their customers.
What the retailers want, the retailers get, and as a result manufacturers have been forced to rapidly evolve and develop their packaging operations to meet the demands of the retailers. Easy right? Well no, and there is a lot to consider when buying and specifying shelf ready packaging machinery over and above the machine itself.
According to Earle Roberts, CEO of Australian packaging machinery manufacturer Fibre King, if you are solely focused on price, and buy an "off the shelf" packaging machine, you are headed for trouble.
It is why Roberts says Fibre King prides itself on being much more than just a machinery seller, but moreover a solution provider, customising proven technology to a manufacturer’s exact needs.
"No two businesses are the same. There will be variations throughout the entire production process, even down to available floor space and preferred layouts," Roberts told IndustrySearch.
"It's dangerous to focus solely on the purchasing price of packaging machinery. These are large, expensive, complex pieces of equipment, and the wrong choice for a business that is reliant on high productivity can spell disaster. Lower overall cost of use will most likely come from a higher-quality machine."
So if price shouldn’t be a deciding factor when specifying packaging machinery, what is? According to Roberts it’s not one thing, but five – long term reliability, service, flexibility, timing and return on investment.
"There's probably nothing more important than having a working machine on the factory floor. Downtime is costly and can quickly erode any savings made in the first place by purchasing cheap equipment," Roberts said.
"If you ask any production line manager how to solve their problems, they tell you straight: ‘increase my factory's productivity’. Their biggest issue is with downtime, where eye-watering amounts of money can be lost in just hours.
"The factors that need to be considered are the amount of uptime a machine will give you – ie. reliable, robust construction, ease of use for the operators, how much operator intervention is required, quick changeovers between sizes/products, easy access for maintenance and services, efficient PLC programming, how well your products are protected in-transit as a result of the machine's ability, how long it takes for service engineers to arrive on-site if needed, the price and delivery timing of spare parts – and the machine's likely length of service given your usage needs."
On the subject of service, Roberts is unequivocal. Does your supplier treat you as their business partner and take the time to understand your business and your exact needs and come back to you quickly with multiple layout options to suit your available floor space? Do they invite you to see their equipment working at other well-established sites, and give you the opportunity to speak to other users?
What about ongoing training? Or ensuring that the commissioning and start up process involves minimal disruption and integrates seamlessly with your operations? If your answers to the above questions are "no", it might be time to look around for a new supplier.
"Everyone is on deadlines to meet shelf ready retailer requirements. How quickly can your supplier produce exactly what you need, in the timeframe available? What safeguards are in place to ensure they meet these timelines?" Roberts asks.
"Are you buying a machine with the maximum range of adjustment and capability available? Will it future-proof your business, or end up costing you a significant amount if things change?"
According to Roberts this final point is particularly important, because the shelf-ready packaging needs of Australian food retailers are ever evolving.
"The most recent trends we are seeing is that the retailers are requesting both smaller pack counts and more specific orientation within the cases," he said.
"The result of this is that the machinery speeds have to increase as well as the collation systems for the primary product. With all this in mind, Fibre King has adopted robotics into the process to provide for future changes.
"Not building this type of flexibility into your purchase could spell for a costly and inconvenient expense in the future, not to mention time to deploy replacement machines."
It is this lack of flexibility that Roberts cites as the one of the most common problems his team comes across when called on to help solve a problem on a manufacturer’s existing shelf-ready packaging line.
"The most common complaint is existing machinery being unable to meet the retailers required formats. In most but not all cases this is double facing," Roberts said.
"A secondary problem is the speed increase required as a result of less ‘packs in a box’. This issue can be problematic right through to the palletising system."
While Roberts is naturally proud that Fibre King is an Australian company, it’s the advantages that provides that he sees as the key issue - namely shorter lead times, ongoing and immediate support, maintenance, and a guarantee that you’ll be looked after.
"The Australian market is small, and there's nowhere for packaging machinery manufacturers to hide if they don't deliver," Roberts said.
"It's more likely you'll get a custom-designed machine that will better fit your needs, depending on what the local company offers. If they have engineers able to visit your business and assess the site carefully, you'll get a better fit for your needs."
It’s a philosophy that Roberts and Fibre King don’t simply preach, but also practice.
"We're constantly involved in R&D to make things faster and better, introducing new ideas only when they're tested and proven," Roberts said.
"Fibre King doesn’t test its new design theories on clients' businesses and leave them holding the baby. Our designs always allow for upgrades, so we can keep existing customers up to speed when technology does advance."