15 min read
Automatic Vs. Fully-Automatic Packers: Which Should You Choose?
Written by: Mathieu Tremblay, 10 September 2021
If you’re searching for ways to improve your folder-gluer productivity, you’ve probably noticed that some of your competitors have Semi-Automatic packers while others have Automatic and Fully-Automatic packers.
You’ve probably also come across the widely present Collecting Tables.
Or maybe you own a Collecting Table yourself and you’re considering an upgrade.
Manual Packing Aid, Semi-Automatic Packers, Automatic Packers, and Fully-Automatic Packers are just some examples of the many packing systems that can be added to a folding gluing line.
Of all those options, which is best for your company?
As the Deputy General Manager and Director of Production and Engineering here at IMPACK, I have managed hundreds of projects that involve all levels of automation.
Since my very early days with IMPACK, one of the most common things I have repeatedly seen is that clients are always tempted by fully-automatic packers, but in most cases, those packers are not the right fit for them.
This article compares Automatic packers to Fully-Automatic packers and will walk you through how to choose the best packer for your production.
*Note: To give you the complete picture and make the comparison super clear, I will often use Semi-Automatic packers as a benchmark for our comparison between Automatic and Fully-Automatic packers.
This is because box manufacturers most often start with manual packing and then either go the semi-auto path or the auto path. A direct comparison between semi-auto packers and auto packers is irrelevant and not very useful.
The 4 Categories of Packing Systems:
First, you should know that packing systems fall into 4 different categories of automation:
- Manual packing.
- Semi-Automated packing.
- Automated packing.
- and Fully-Automated packing.
Let’s briefly take a look at each category and how they compare against one another:
1. Manual Packing:
The manual packing process is the lowest level of automation and usually the starting point of a folder-gluer operation. It is the traditional packing method where the entire packing process is done manually i.e. by hand.
No automation is involved and no case management is involved.
Collecting Tables are the most common packing help/aid machine that fall under the manual packing category.
Although Collecting Tables are quite limited in their capabilities and scope of automation, they are very popular and widely used in the North American market.
IMPACK’s Collecting Tables are the "Packing Help Stations.”
🔍 Related: Learn more about What Are Collecting Tables and How Do They Compare to Semi-Automatic Packers?
2. Semi-Automated Packing:
The semi-automated packing process includes at least one automated function.
For example, IMPACK’s “Ergosa packer” is our top sold machine and happens to be one of the only semi-automatic packers that exist, to date, on the market.
It is semi-automatic because of the automated case management capabilities that it offers.
Besides our semi-automatic packer, the “Ergosa,” there are hardly any other known semi-automatic packers on the market. We developed the semi-auto packer range to bridge the gap between Manual packing and Auto packing.
🔍 Related: Learn more about What is an Ergosa Packer & How Can It Improve Your Packing Process?
3. Automated Packing:
The automated packing process is where the machine becomes the key factor of the packing process and the operator (or packing person) is now limited to performing background tasks such as feeding the packer with empty cases or managing full cases.
Some examples of Automatic packers in the Western market include: Bobst’s “CartonPack 4 Automatic Packer,” Heidelberg’s “Diana Packer,” WSI Global’s “Express Pack” and Graphic West Packaging’s “J-Pack.”
IMPACK’s Automatic packer is the “Virtuo.”
4. Fully-Automated Packing:
Of all 4 categories, the fully-automated packing 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 packing person/operator is only involved in make-readies/setups.
An example of a Fully-Automatic packer in the Western market is Bobst's "Carton Pack 4 Automatic Packer + optional case erector."
IMPACK’s Fully-Automatic packer is the “Virtuo + ACF.”
In this article, we will focus on 2 of those 4 categories: Automatic packers versus Fully-Automatic packers.
If you want a more in-depth explanation of the 4 different levels of automation, check out the article “What’s the Difference between Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto, and Fully-Auto Folder-Gluer Packers?”
Or, compare all 4 levels of automation against each other by reading “Manual Vs. Semi-Auto Vs. Auto Vs. Fully-Auto Folder-Gluer Packers: Which Is Best?”
Automatic Packers — Advantages & Disadvantages
IMPACK’s Automatic packer: The Virtuo Packer - A high-performance automatic folder-gluer packer, and one of the only packers on the market that can handle both carton and corrugated board.
Just like a Semi-Automatic packer, an Automatic packer partially automates your packing process.
An automatic packer offers an automated packing process where the machine becomes the key factor of the packing process and the operator is now limited to only performing background tasks.
Those background tasks include feeding the packer with empty cases or managing full cases.
That said, and just like with a semi-auto packer, the operator is still permanently present as part of the automated packing process and required to operate the auto packer.
However, and unlike the semi-auto packer, the auto packer offers a more automated packing process with greater performance but less versatility.
IMPACK’s Automatic packer is the “Virtuo” packer.
Advantages of Automatic Packers
1. High Production Speed:
Moving from no-automation to automation brings along many benefits.
One of the major advantages of automatic packers is greater performance.
By performance, we mean high packing speeds.
And the reason behind this is simple: Automatic packers are designed for dedicated productions, hence increasing the packing speed is the main goal of an auto packer.
With an auto packer, your speed can only be influenced by the machine itself as humans are now limited to background tasks and can never be a bottleneck.
Therefore, automatic packers generally offer higher packing speeds than semi-automatic packers.
Having said that, you can reach the performance of an auto packer with a semi-auto packer.
I’ll get to this point in a minute.
2. Ergonomics is Less of a Problem Compared to Semi-Auto Packers:
Because the operator is limited to background tasks in an auto process, ergonomics is less of an issue with an auto packer compared to a semi-auto packer since these background tasks are not ergonomically challenging.
This means that you do not need to worry about finding ways to improve the ergonomics of your workstations because your packing staff are getting tired or stress about reorganizing your workstations to improve the efficiency of your packing staff.
Humans are limited to background tasks, and thus, cannot be a bottleneck in an auto process.
The packing speed of an auto packer will never be affected by a human’s limitations.
3. Consistent Productivity:
To easily understand this point, let’s take a step back and talk about semi-automatic packers.
When talking about semi-automatic packers, their biggest selling point is their high level of versatility.
By versatility, we mean flexibility.
Because semi-auto packers offer such a high level of flexibility, there are so many things you can do to increase your productivity and packing speed.
But, there are also so many ways where you could be losing productivity and causing bottlenecks to your own folding-gluing lines.
And this defines the key, and most important, difference between semi-automatic packers and all automatic and fully-automatic packers:
The performance of a semi-auto packer is entirely dependent on how you use it i.e. the skill and dexterity of the operator using it.
That is, to get the most out of your semi-automatic packer and reach the same performance as an automatic packer, your operator must be well-trained on using the semi-automatic packer.
A well-trained operator that has learned how to maximize a semi-auto packer’s productivity can easily make the semi-auto packer run just as fast as an auto packer.
In other words, you cannot have the versatility of a semi-automatic packer with an automatic packer, but you can reach the performance of an automatic packer with a semi-automatic packer: A critical point to acknowledge.
Going back to automatic packers, they are far less versatile and much more focused on dedicated jobs.
This makes projects involving auto packers very straightforward and with a performance that is easier to foresee and guarantee.
In sum, auto packers offer more consistent productivity than semi-auto packers because they are less influenced by the limitations of a human.
But as we will see shortly, fully-automatic packers offer even more consistent productivity than auto packers.
Disadvantages of Automatic Packers
1. Not the Top Speed:
Although automatic packers offer high packing speeds, they are not as fast as fully-automatic packers. And in some specific situations, a fully-auto packer is a better option.
Another important point to consider is that even though humans cannot be a bottleneck in an auto process, you still need human supervision i.e. the operator is still required to be present in an auto process and is still part of your cost.
If your company is located in an area where there are labor shortages or rising wages, then an auto packer may not be worth the payback.
🔍 Related: Is Investing in Packaging Equipment Worth It? Learn How Long it would take to Get Your Return From Investing in Packaging Equipment.
2. Less Versatile than Semi-Auto Packers:
Auto packers are not as versatile as Semi-Auto packers.
And that is simply because as you move from non-automation to full-automation, you are gradually sacrificing versatility for performance.
By versatility, we’re referring to flexibility. And by performance, we’re referring to speed.
The biggest selling point for a semi-auto packer is its high level of versatility.
For example, with IMPACK’s Ergosa Semi-Auto packer, you can run quite literally anything you shoot through your folder-gluer.
This is because Semi-Auto packers allow human intervention which means that your operators can easily access your boxes to make adjustments, quality control checks, and corrections at any time without ever needing to interrupt the production.
With auto packers, this versatility is more limited as the focus is on dedicated production and performance (or speed) is more important.
3. Longer & More Challenging Installation and Setup than Semi-Auto Packers:
The installation and setup of an automatic packer is generally longer and more challenging than a semi-automatic packer.
For example, the Virtuo Auto packer’s setup time is approximately 10 minutes.
In contrast, the Ergosa Semi-Auto packer’s setup time is as short as 5 minutes.
And, as far as fully-auto packers are concerned, their installation and setup is longer and more complex than auto packers and semi-auto packers. An additional 5-15 min must be considered to set up the Automatic Case Feeder (ACF) and the case erector.
4. Auto Packers Cost More than Semi-Auto Packers:
It is no surprise that auto packers cost more than semi-auto packers: The more actions you automate, the greater the cost.
That being said, there is no packer on the market that can copy all human hand movements. It is so natural for a human to pick up a box out of the shingle when there’s a problem.
And admittedly, it’s just as easy to fancy the thought of automating the hand movements of an operator, but when you start thinking about the mechanics involved, you’re hit with the unfortunate realization that it’s virtually impossible for a robot to copy all those natural human movements.
You can argue that there are fully automated robots for palletizing that can imitate most of the human’s movements, and that is true.
But it’s important for you to know that with those projects, the scope is clearly defined, always the same, never changing, and always accurate.
What happens if a slight modification is needed?
The robot completely fails.
But a human will just adapt: There’s a box sticking out or pushed forward...a human can just fix it with their own hands.
You cannot automate every action a human does. That’s just the reality.
We organize everything around the folder-gluer packer so that the process is as automated and efficient as possible, but we rely on humans to make it possible.
You can certainly attempt to imitate a lot of those human movements through automation, just like you can launch a spacecraft to Mars, but the question is: At what cost are you willing to do so?
Would you be willing to pay millions of dollars for a machine that is fully automated and perfectly dedicated with zero margin for error but yet has a complete lack of forgiveness towards modifications?
This is where realism must be integrated into your decision-making process: There’s always going to be a tradeoff between versatility and performance.
🔍 Related: Find out How Much Do Folder-Gluer Packers Cost? based on their level of automation.
Fully-Automatic Packers — Advantages & Disadvantages
IMPACK’s Fully-automatic packer: The Virtuo Packer + Automatic Case Feeder (ACF) - The only 100% fully automatic folder-gluer packer that exists on the market for both corrugated and carton boards.
A Fully-Automatic packer offers the highest possible level of automation.
It is when you’ve automated your entire packing process so that the operator is no longer required to be present.
When it comes to comparing Collecting Tables Vs. Semi-Auto packers Vs. Auto Packers Vs. Fully-Auto packers, fully-auto packers are easily the most tempting option that clients want.
However, it is also the most complex option requiring digital knowledge, a larger footprint, more money, and strict emergency shutdown protocols.
But, for some companies, full-automation is the only realistic option.
1. Top Production Speed:
Semi-automatic packers are far more versatile and flexible than automatic packers and there is absolutely no doubt that they are more flexible and adaptable when compared to fully-automatic packers, but it is important for you to factor in the reality of your own company.
Fully-automatic packers can be a perfect fit if extreme productivity is required, either because your demand is quickly increasing or because you are short of manpower.
Taking that into account, it is just as important to not overestimate your needs and end up with a packer that is too complex, too expensive, and completely not tailored to your production.
A big advantage that fully-automatic packers offer is top production speed. Let’s take our fully-auto packer “Virtuo + ACF” that is shown in the image above as an example.
The Virtuo + ACF combination is the only 100% fully-automatic packer that exists on the market for both corrugated and carton boards. It is the most compact and economical auto-packer to date.
At IMPACK, you can easily upgrade from an automated process to a fully-automated process. This is done by simply adding the Automatic Case Feeder (ACF) to your Virtuo packer.
In other words, if you start with a Virtuo auto packer and later realize you need a fully-automated process, you can upgrade at any time and the process is as simple as "plug and play."
If your typical production is one-row, one-layer — medium to large boxes — with an extreme focus on speed, then full-automation with the Virtuo + ACF could be the perfect fit.
The Virtuo + ACF has a speed of up to 8 cases per minute, with a high-precision laser counter, and on a small footprint.
However, if your typical production is multi-row, multi-layer case packing, then the Virtuo + ACF is not the right fit for you.
2. Unmatched Constant Productivity:
Fully-automatic packers take no breaks and no vacations. Operating 24/7, the capabilities of those machines are unmatched.
If you’re running large volumes (100,000-150,000 boxes/setup of folding cartons or 40,000 – 60,000 boxes/setup of laminated boards) with standardized boxes, then constant productivity is critical for your company.
In such situations where there is a requirement for consistency and speed, fully-auto packers are the only viable option.
No other packer can match the productivity of fully-auto packers as humans are completely removed from a fully-automated process.
Disadvantages of Fully-Automatic Packers
1. Most Costly & Complex:
Because fully-automatic packers involve a precise and technical installation process, it is no surprise that they are more expensive than semi-auto packers and auto packers as a one-time cost. Plus, they are more limited in terms of what they can do.
🔍 Related: Discover How Much Different Folder-Gluer Packers Cost.
2. Laser-Focused on Dedicated Tasks & Requires Strict Safety Measures:
This is where the concept of “limitation” comes into play.
With a semi-automatic packer such as the Ergosa, you can shoot whatever box you want through your folder-gluer as you have the power of easy access and the flexibility to take out any box you want with your own hands, at any time, and place it into the case.
With an automatic packer, your versatility is more limited but you still have access to the filled case for inspection and quality control.
In contrast, when it comes to a fully-automatic packer like the Virtuo + ACF, all access is restricted, and if you ever need inspection, it can only be done further down the line.
That is, a fully-auto packer requires a large footprint. Your fully-automatic packer has to be 100% safe.
Hence, if there is ever a problem, you have to shut it down to zero with an emergency stop, otherwise, it is too dangerous for a human.
If you’re looking to produce various prints of beverage boxes that are all in the same size, then you’re happy-go-lucky with a fully-auto packer.
However, if you produce other types of boxes, then you need to put your fully-auto monster away as it is dedicated to doing that specific task and is not forgiving enough to be flexible.
If they see that the box is not perfect, they can easily take it out and maintain the same speed, or they can lower the speed to control everything and then pick up the speed.
You never have to go down to zero with a semi-auto packer.
🔍 Related: Learn more about the Ergosa’s 3 Main Packing Modes & the Benefits it Can Offer to Your Packing Process.
Which Folder-Gluer Packer Is Best For You?
The answer to this question is far from an easy “one-size-fits-all” response.
It all depends on your production, product mix, box configuration, goals, budget, and a set of intertwined factors.
But I won’t leave you at just that.
Here is the answer in 60 seconds ⏱️:
A Manual Packing Help/Aid is Best When 👇:
- You want to take your first step towards improving your folder-gluer’s productivity
- You’re not sure of your production and have a very tight budget
- You have complex boxes that require constant adjustments/quality control checks
- You have very limited floor space
If your production meets several of the characteristics described above and you’ve never had any “packing help” or “packing aid,” then a Collecting Table like IMPACK’s “Packing Help Stations” could be an excellent start.
A Semi-Automatic Packer is Best When 👇:
- You have variable production runs
- You have small to medium-sized boxes
- You have a wide and diverse variety of box formats
- You have complex boxes that require constant adjustments/quality control checks
Here, IMPACK’s “Ergosa packer” could be a perfect fit.
An Automatic Packer is Best When 👇:
- You have long production runs
- You have medium to very large-sized boxes
- You have a limited variety and similar box formats
- You have simpler boxes that do not need constant adjustments/quality control checks
Here, IMPACK’s “Virtuo” would be a great fit.
A Fully-Automatic Packer is Best When 👇:
- You have all the automatic packer requirements listed above
- You want to fully automate your packing process
- You want to reach a zero-human operation (no humans involved)
- You're interested in advanced monitoring and industry 4.0 functionalities
Here, IMPACK’s “Virtuo + ACF” would be the best fit.
I understand that looking for the right packer is far from a simple task and so I hope this article helps you have a better insight into what packing system is best for your company!
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Your Next Steps:
Compare Manual Vs. Semi-Auto Vs. Auto Vs. Fully-Auto Packers to discover what level of automation is right for you,
Next, compare Semi-Automatic Vs. Fully-Automatic Packers side-by-side to find out which is better for your specific production.
And then, find out which of IMPACK’s 3 main packaging equipment is the right fit.
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