15 min read

Manual Vs. Semi-Auto Vs. Auto Vs. Fully-Auto Folder-Gluer Packers: Which Is Best?

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Today's cardboard packaging market demands more and more personalization with shorter production runs and boxes with shapes as diverse as they are varied.

This requires not only ever more flexible folder-gluers but also more flexible packers that can be integrated onto those gluers and be adaptable enough to meet the market’s complex needs.

Can a folder-gluer packer actually boost my folder-gluer's productivity?

Is there an unbiased comparison between the different folder-gluer packers out there? 

How do I know which folder-gluer packer is right for me?

As manufacturers and installers of folder-gluer packaging equipment and peripherals, we get asked those questions all the time.

This article is my effort to provide a clear, unbiased and objective comparison between the 4 categories of folder-gluer packers and expose the true differences without holding anything back.

My approach will be straightforward: I will define each category, list the pros and cons of each, compare the 4 categories and then back off so that you make your own decision.


What's the Difference between Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto and Fully-Auto Packers?


Before I define each category, it’s noteworthy to mention that those are our own definitions and not dictionary definitions. Each category can offer a range of solutions with varying degrees, scopes and levels of automation.

However, those definitions are “informally embraced” as the industry-standard and most solutions on the market squarely fit within one of those 4 categories.

     1. Manual: The manual process is the lowest level of automation and is usually the starting point of a folder-gluer operation. It is the traditional packing method where the entire packing process is done manually. No case management is involved.

     2. Semi-Auto: The semi-auto process is the first step towards case management. The operator of the folder-gluer packer remains the key factor of the packing process with the help of at least one auto function.

     3.  Auto: The auto-process is where the machine becomes the key factor of the packing process. The operator now becomes limited to background tasks like feeding the folder-gluer packer with cases or managing full cases.

     4.  Full-Auto: Of all 4 categories, the full-auto process is the highest possible level of automation. The whole packing process here becomes automatically managed without requiring the presence of an operator (or any other humans) while running. The operator is only involved in make-readies/setups.

If you want a more in-depth explanation of the 4 different levels of automation, our article "What’s the Difference between Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto and Fully-Auto Folder-Gluer Packers?” digs deeper into those 4 automation levels and explicitly describes how they compare to one another!


Manual Packing Pros and Cons




A Right-Angle Packer (Manual Packing) that we saw during one of our client visits.


Pros of Manual Packing (Packing Help Stations/Tables):


  • Has the quickest and easiest setup of all automation solutions with virtually zero setup time.
  • Allows you to slow down the shingle of boxes to the minimum possible speed by maximizing the compression of the shingle.
  • Facilitates an easier packing process by presenting/orienting the boxes in a better way for the packing person(s) to pack them into the case.
  • Easily moveable as most manual packing help stations are on wheels.
  • Gives you the capability to dispose of or place boxes that are already turned 90°.


Cons of Manual Packing (Packing Help Stations/Tables):


  • Although called right angle packers, those packing help stations are just box turners that better present/orient the boxes for packing.
  • Just like the traditional packing process, you still have to pack your boxes by hand and do the case pushing, case taping and case ejecting. Packing is still a fully manual process.
  • They involve high physical strain because the packing personnel have to lift loads of boxes.
  • The speed of the accumulation conveyor is not always synchronized with the folder-gluer compression belt.
  • No case management is involved.
  • Slower speed given that there is no automation and no case management involved. You can physically lift fewer boxes with your hands and hence you’re slower.
  • Only 1 packing mode is available.
  • It is not possible for you to choose the way you want to turn your boxes (left or right). It is fixed.
  • No “Straight through mode” (when turning 90° to the left or 90° to the right is not needed).
  • Not customizable according to your production realities or constraints.
  • Limited ergonomic gains.
  • Limited productivity gains of 10 to 25%.


Semi-Auto Packers Pros and Cons




IMPACK’S Ergosa: A semi-automatic packer with the performance of an automatic packer. (Note: This specific Ergosa A was custom built as an XL size for one of our clients and is much larger than our standard Ergosa A’s).


Pros of Semi-Auto Packers:


Full disclosure: Because there are hardly any known folder-gluer packers on the market that fit within the semi-auto category, we based those “pros” on our semi-automatic packer: The Ergosa series.


  • Quick and easy installation and setup: Just like the “packing help stations” in the manual category, semi-auto packers like our Ergosa series have short setup times (5 minutes).
  • Its high level of versatility and modularity allows you to custom-configure your machine and increase your level of automation by adding and removing different modes/options.
  • More flexibility and quality control capabilities offer your personnel easy access for adjustments, quality checks and corrections without interrupting your production processes.
  • Offers you the capability of managing a complete row of boxes in one motion instead of being limited by small batches as with the packing help stations (within the manual category).
  • Includes case management.
  • Can run any box you shoot through the folder-gluer.
  • Offers a multitude of modes and options: For example, our Ergosa series offers the “Horizontal Mode” for straight lines, “Vertical Mode” for 4/6-corners, “Pick & Place Mode” for crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes, “Tray Holder Mode” for very small boxes, adapted versions of the vertical mode for strapping or banding machines, “Case Splitter” for heavy rows, etc.
  • Possible to upgrade (add/remove any mode and(or) options) to further expand the scope of your automation.
  • Slows down the shingle of boxes to the minimum possible speed.
  • Dispose of/place boxes already turned at 90° (when needed).
  • Possible to have a box turner that allows you to choose on which side to turn the boxes (left or right).
  • Offers a “Straight through mode” option when turning 90° to the left or right is not needed.
  • Customizable according to your production realities or constraints.
  • Most semi-auto packers are on wheels and hence easily moveable.
  • Offers substantial ergonomic gains.
  • Offers substantial productivity gains of 5 to 100%.


Cons of Semi-Auto Packers: 


  • Generally more expensive than manual packing help stations/manual packing.
  • Requires more training and has a longer learning curve.
  • Setup time is longer when changing from one packing mode to the other.
  • Not the top speed: With semi-auto packers, the default tradeoff is performance for versatility. The power of easy access and the ability to perform adjustments/quality control checks also reduces the speed.
  • Still requires human supervision: If you operate in an area where there are labor shortages or rising wages then this option may not be worth the payback.
  • Productivity can vary based on your product mix, type of production, box configuration, work methods and the existing workflows around your machine.
  • Requires a marking device such as OBP to mark the kicker/counter carton.
  • Generally requires a larger footprint than manual packers.


Auto Packers Pros and Cons



Virtuo packer JPG-1

IMPACK's Virtuo: One of the only automatic packers on the market that can handle both carton and corrugated board.


Pros of Auto Packers:


  • Top speed: With auto packers, increasing your speed is the goal and your speed can only be influenced by the machine itself as humans are now limited to background tasks and cannot be a bottleneck.
  • Ergonomics is less of an issue: This is because the tasks performed by the operator are not ergonomically challenging since the operator is limited to background tasks, such as feeding the folder-gluer packer with empty cases or managing full cases.


Cons of Auto Packers:


  • More expensive than semi-auto-packers.
  • Setup times are generally longer and more challenging than semi-auto packers.
  • Most are fixed or, if on wheels, they are harder to move.
  • Less versatile as they are dedicated to specific production types.
  • The operator is still part of the payroll: Although their involvement is limited, the operator is still there, and working hard, whether for efficiency or ergonomic reasons. Humans are still part of the auto process.


Fully-Auto Packers Pros and Cons




IMPACK’s Fully-automatic packing solution: The Virtuo Packer + IN3 XL Box turner paired with an Automatic Case Feeder (ACF).


Pros of Full-Auto Packers:


  • High production speed: Fully-auto packers can be a perfect fit if extreme productivity is a necessity whether due to increasing demand or shortage of labour.
  • No humans involved: Going full-auto would mean that the machine can now place the empty cases by itself then take the filled cases and seal them fully automatically. The operator is only ever involved during setups and adjustments.
  • Perfect for companies positioned in areas with surging labour wages/salaries.
  • Offers constant productivity: Fully-auto packers operate 24/7. No breaks; no vacations.
  • Operators can focus on higher value-added activities.
  • Employees are no longer subjected to a high-level of manual work and an environment that leads to repetitive strain injuries. This thereby results in less absence due to health issues.


Cons of Fully-Auto Packers: 


  • More costly and complex to install: Requires more preparation, deeper technical knowledge.
  • More expensive: The transition from an auto to a fully-auto process can involve an exponential increase in costs because a human can always do things that a machine cannot, or can but at a drastically higher cost.
  • Focused on dedicated tasks: The scope must be clearly defined, always the same, never changing and always accurate. Fully-auto packers are dedicated to specific productions and are unforgiving towards errors in surrounding processes (folder-gluer and case erectors for example).
  • Requires a larger footprint and the installation of a protection zone: A fully-auto packer needs a larger footprint and strict safety measures. More specifically, when robots are involved, you must restrict access to the operating machinery.
  • Going fully-auto doesn’t equate to being faster: In a fully-auto process, you are automating the operator that only used to put empty cases into the machine during an auto process. So, this operator was never a bottleneck, and hence automating this human that was not a bottleneck won’t make you go faster.


How do the 4 Levels of Automation Compare to One Another?


To make the comparison of the 4 categories simpler, we’ve rated each category on a scale of 1-5 based on 5 key criteria.

Those 5 criteria were selected as the “key” based on our data which shows that these are the 5 key deciding factors that clients focus on when choosing a folder-gluer packer.

Since each category includes distinct solutions of varying levels (or ranges) of automation, most categories are also ranked in ranges. For example, 1-2, 2-4, 3-4, etc. with 5 being the highest score in each category. 


  Manual Semi-Automated Automated Fully-Automated Rating (1-5)
Price 1-2 2-4 3-4 5 5 means most expensive
Ergonomics 1-2 2-4 4-5 N/A 5 means most ergonomic
Versatility 3-5 3-5 2 1 5 means most versatile
Performance 1 2-4 4-5 4-5 5 means best performance
Maintenance 1-2 1-3 3-4 4-5 5 means needs most maintenance


    1. Price

The price naturally follows the complexity. In other words, the further you go up towards full-automation, the more expensive the solution will be.

It is important for you to know that this comparison table does not reflect the fact that going from an auto process to a fully-auto might sometimes dramatically increase the cost.

Don’t let those impressive fully-auto packer videos obscure your assessment of options when making a decision on a folder-gluer packer. Always keep your ROI as the first and foremost deciding factor when choosing what folder-gluer packer is right for you.

Unless your goal is to have the *shiniest* machine on the floor of course!

    2. Ergonomics

Manual processes do not really offer much, if any, ergonomic gains.

All the box lifting and joint stress lead to injuries and is very commonly the primary concern in some of the projects we work on with clients. Going the semi-auto path will significantly increase the ergonomics in your packing process.

What about an auto process?

Well since the work involved is usually not very labor-intensive, it’s usually the most ergonomic solution.

And in the fully-auto process, ergonomics is simply irrelevant! There are no humans involved. The machine does all the groundwork for you.

     3. Versatility

Manual packing help stations and semi-auto packers are unquestionably the most versatile.

But their level of versatility depends on the specific technicalities of the process.

Some machines, for example, are just incapable of processing an under stacked shingle of 4-corners or crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes. On the other hand, others can process quite-literally anything you throw at them!

When it comes to auto and fully-auto packers, you inevitably sacrifice versatility for the sake of performance. It’s the natural trade-off of automation.

This is because those types of gluer packers require perfect control of your folder-gluer and are not tolerant of quality problems, adjustments, corrections or any modifications in the slightest.

    4. Performance 

A critical point to recognize is that a well-optimized semi-auto packer can easily reach the performance of an auto packer whilst maintaining the versatility of a semi-auto packer.

In other words, you cannot have the versatility of a semi-auto packer with an auto-packer, but you can reach the performance of an auto-packer with a semi-auto packer.

This explains why we dedicate a lot of time and R&D to the development of our semi-auto packer, the Ergosa.

As far as a full-auto packer is concerned, it won’t always give you more performance and certainly not better speed.

In fact, the ROI is completely focused on labor reduction in a fully-auto process.

    5. Maintenance

The more you go up towards full-automation, the more you have to consider maintenance as a requirement to sustain, and consistently improve, your folder-gluer's productivity.

All machines can and will eventually fail, breakdown or come across issues. That is common and okay. It is what a company can do to fix them, and maintain that, is what truly matters.

Having a proper maintenance plan in place is crucial to help you achieve the greatest payback out of your machines and reduce production loss caused by breakdowns.

That said, maintenance is also more expensive with auto and fully-auto packers and will require more time and technical/digital expertise.


Choosing the Folder-Gluer Packer that Is Best For You:




The IMPACK Team testing the MFA Batch Inverter for crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes.


So, what folder-gluer packer is best for me?

Ultimately, it all depends on what works best for your production, needs and company’s budget.

But I won’t leave you here.

To help you have a better idea of which folder-gluer packer is right for you, ask yourself the following 6 important questions and note down your answers:

  1. Do you run smaller boxes, medium-sized boxes or larger boxes?
  2. Do you produce multi-format boxes or one-row, one-layer boxes?
  3. What existing machines do you have? (and how many?)
  4. Are quality control checks and regular adjustments important to you?
  5. Is uninterrupted, high-speed production your #1 priority?
  6. What is your vision: Where do you want to go?

Your answers to those 6 important questions will be your stepping stone to choosing the best folder-gluer packer for your production.

The next steps would be:

1. Discover how to improve the productivity of your folder-gluer with $0 investment and only with the equipment you have

2. Next, once you’ve pushed your folder-gluer to its maximum potential, you may want to start exploring the world of folder-gluer packaging equipment and peripherals