MAN VERSUS MACHINE: Options in the World of End-of-Line Packaging

By: Cheryl Gray

Quality, efficiency and speed are but a few of the attributes assigned to best practices when it comes to end-of-line packaging.  Craft breweries and distilleries that make the change from manual to automatic or, in some cases, combine the best of both worlds, have a universal goal: to produce an attractively packaged and cost-effective end product that draws in consumers and keeps them coming back.

  When it comes to automation for end-of-line packaging, the best companies listen to the needs of craft brewers and distillers, rather than drive them to a product that won’t benefit their bottom line. Such is the case with WestRock of Atlanta, Georgia, which touts itself as the only company in the paper packaging industry with in-house machinery manufacturing teams designing full lines of automatic packaging systems. WestRock considers itself a leader in innovation and sustainable packaging practices. David Hayslette is WestRock’s Senior Director of Business Development for Craft Beverages.

  “Customers come to us because we create customized, sustainable and value-added solutions using the world’s most comprehensive portfolio of paper and packaging products,” says Hayslette. “Customers appreciate our partnership approach. They know that when they work with WestRock on a total automated solution, they have a single point of contact for paperboard, corrugated and machinery solutions that work together.”

  Hayslette points out that for many craft breweries and distilleries, automation comes into play when growth demands something beyond what a manual operation can handle.

  “Typically, end-of-line packaging automation decisions are driven by upgrades to filling capacity. In other words, if a brewery is filling cans at a rate of 45 cans per minute with a mobile filler and they decide to purchase their own filler with a speed of 100 cans per minute, they will likely not be able to keep up with the speed using labor, or their costs will increase prohibitively. Instead, with the investment in the faster filler, they also become interested in automated packaging to address their objectives.”

  There is a delicate balance, Hayslette says, between reducing costs for labor and materials, while working to maximize productivity.  

  “Automation brings a level of consistency in the packing process by the way cartons are erected and glued versus the manual approach, which can be subject to human variance. In a tight labor market like we have in the U.S., finding laborers to hand-pack cartons can be challenging, and the hourly pay rate is increasing in some jurisdictions. Automation also brings the ability to pack out more product in the same period. Manual packaging works best when there is no bottleneck created to the production process; there is readily available labor; and the rate of pay is reasonable, such that the total cost of packaging is reasonable. “

  Hayslette stresses that WestRock works with clients to help ease the burden of financing the capital investment costs tied to purchasing machinery for end-of-line packaging. He points to return-on-investment as one key consideration for breweries and distilleries thinking of buying automated packaging systems.

  “We encourage customers to think about their total cost of ownership and do a side-by-side analysis of the manual versus automated process. A manual process typically carries with it the cost of labor, a cost associated with the packaging materials to be used and a productivity rate. This would be compared to the automated option, which would typically reduce labor, reduce materials costs and increase productivity rates. However, there is the added investment in the machinery itself.”

  Minnesota-based and employee-owned Douglas Machine sold its first automation product in the 1960s to none other than the Curtiss Candy Company, makers of iconic candy bars that include Baby Ruth and Butterfinger. More than 50 years later, Douglas provides a vast array of what it describes as cutting-edge machinery for cartoning, case packing, as well as tray and shrink wrapping.

  Todd Welker, Beverage Sales Manager for Douglas, says top producers in brewing—both craft and legacy—along with distilled spirits, come to Douglas for their packaging machinery needs. The company, Welker says, designs and builds exclusively servo platforms in its Minnesota factory.  All come with nationwide sales and service support, backed by a three-year warranty and a parts price guarantee.

  “Typically, our customers come to us when either their speeds increase beyond their current low-end machinery, or when they are planning ahead to accommodate future outputs,” said Welker. “It is our clients who make the decision to automate based on labor costs, labor availability and safety of their personnel. Reducing labor or the concerns of safety due to manual processes generally drives automation, in addition to increasing line speeds, which reduces labor economies.”

  Welker says that switching from manual to automated end-of-line packaging takes output to new levels.

  “Manual packaging is extremely flexible. The human hand can do a number of things that are difficult with automation. Still, automation of packaging is by far more cost-effective, and it can reduce or eliminate repetitive motion injuries where one injury can potentially cost more than a fully automated line.  Automated packaging can also run much faster than manual work, thus increasing line speeds, reducing labor and driving up efficiencies.”

Welker says that his brewery clients work with a variety of end-of-line packaging options.

  “The carton and tray are the most accepted packages in the brewing industry when cans are run. Bottles are often run on older case erectors, drop packs and case closers, but more breweries are looking to eliminate the box-shop and utilize all-in-one wraparound case packing technologies. These greatly reduce footprint, labor, case costs, and can even potentially eliminate partitions in the cases for even more material savings.”

  However, for some craft beverage makers, the dollar investment of automated end-of-line packaging can be daunting. Meghann Quinn, co-owner of Bale Breaker Brewing Company in Yakima, Washington, says her brewery’s end-of-line packaging is all done by hand. 

  “We manually put the six-packs into the cases and palletize them.  We do both of those manually because end-of-line automated packaging systems are too expensive, and our speed doesn’t necessitate them.”

  Some breweries and distilleries deploy manual labor as a way to test the market to learn what are the best pack sizes and styles. Once the decision is made on what works and what doesn’t, many producers turn to automation to quickly get their products to customers.

Best of Both Worlds

  The marketplace had to wait nearly a century before Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, founded in the 1800s in Nashville, Tennessee, was resurrected by brothers Andy and Charles Nelson. The Nelson brothers worked to restore the landmark distillery built by their great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Nelson, and with it, a brand that many consider highly responsible for putting Tennessee whiskey on the map worldwide before Prohibition dried up production.

  Fast forward to the 21st Century, when the Nelson brothers have embraced many aspects of automation in their end-of-line packaging. However, just as they managed to re-create the family’s original whiskey recipe through meticulous, hands-on research, Andy Nelson says the distillery is just as careful not to abandon many of the manual end-of-line packaging techniques that make Green Brier’s products unique. A combination of automated and manual systems, Nelson believes, brings together the best of both worlds.

  “We have been utilizing both for quite some time,” Nelson says. “If you have all or mostly automated equipment, it’s important to have a good tech on hand to help when things inevitably go wrong.  And, with manual or semi-auto equipment, it’s necessary to have a staff that is attentive and detail-oriented.  It’s all about quality and efficiency!” 

  Sourcing suppliers for end-of-line packaging needs is as careful a process as deciding what products to order. Nelson says that his distillery relies upon a variety of options.

  “We’ve used a handful of methods, ranging from brokers to OEM directly. It can depend on how much I know about each item and how much I trust others to help me select equipment and coordinate maintenance.”

  For those embracing automation on any level, the opportunities are endless. While manual packaging renders what only a human approach can offer, automation addresses the future, boosting production and the bottom line.

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