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What’s the Difference between Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto and Fully-Auto Folder-Gluer Packers?

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Having recently moved into a new place, putting together furniture was a dreadful task that I will never forget.

All because of that one IKEA double-sized bed. 

The clock ticked at 5:00AM as I stared with deep frustration at that bed ☹️. 

It seemed like a hopeless chore that was about to cost me an entire sleepless day.

All until I found the perfectly sized wrench that the previous tenants had “accidentally” left in a hidden kitchen cabinet.

Or maybe it was meant to be. Whatever the case, I am forever grateful.

Do you know what’s the most important lesson I learned from that experience?

How important it is to choose the right tool for the right task. 

Just like with putting together furniture, when it comes to finding solutions to increase your folder-gluer’s productivity, you have to choose the correct machine for the calculated production. 

And as much as fully automatic folder-gluer packers are tempting, they aren’t for everyone.

Neither are manual packing help/aid.

A shocker? I know…it’s quite a blunt statement, especially coming from folder-gluer packer manufacturers!

Yes — IMPACK manufactures and installs folder-gluer packaging equipment, but our top goal is one thing: mutual trust. 

And that means helping you make the most educated decision that is best for you.

Even if that means not choosing IMPACK. 

This article will break down for you the different categories of automation solutions, and how they compare to one another, so that you can learn for yourself what folder-gluer packer is best for you.

Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto and Fully-Auto Packers: What’s the Difference?

Should I go with manual packing help/aid or a fully-auto packer 🤔?

Thinking

👉 That question above represents the #1 question clients like you ask when they start searching for automation solutions. 

And the answer is that there are more than those two options.

In fact, manual packing and fully-auto packers are the two opposite ends of the range/spectrum of automation, but there are many other solutions in between those two that most companies shy away from mentioning.

Automation solutions fall into 4 categories: Manual packing, Semi-Automated packing, Automated packing and Fully-Automated packing. 

And those categories are defined on the basis of the level (or scope) of automation offered by that specific category.

Before we explain the difference between those 4 levels of automation, it is important for you to know that the definitions of those categories are our own definitions and not dictionary definitions.

They are always relative to what happens after the folder-gluer. 

That said, those 4 categories are the “informally accepted” industry-standard categories that group the different types of folder-gluer packers (or automation solutions).

Makes sense? Let’s dive right in!

1. Manual Packing

The Manual category is the starting point of the folder-gluer operation where the whole packing process is done manually.

At the lowest end of the manual category, clients would be packing directly at the end of the folder-gluer compression belt.

In other words, they would crowd a bunch of people at the end of the gluer compression belt and ask them to pack as fast as they can. Fortunately, we rarely see this happening anymore.

In addition, clients would usually have the most basic tables made of wood or stainless steel and “tilting holders/stands” used to tilt the cases which are to be packed with the boxes. 

An example of this that we saw in one of our client visits is shown in the image below:

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A photo from one of our visits to a client that depicts the packing personnel packing boxes into cases on a basic table with a “tilting holder/stand” used to tilt the cases.

The first step forward would be to add a conveyor after the folder-gluer compression belt so that your packing personnel can accumulate more boxes per meter of conveyor. This conveyor is called an “accumulation conveyor.”

The accumulation conveyor reduces the speed of the shingle and allows more boxes within the same time-frame. It’s more ergonomic, easier to keep up with the speed and far more convenient to work with multiple people.

The next step would be to upgrade from your basic tables with tilting holders/stands to “actual tilting tables.” 

The 3D image below depicts an actual tilting table:

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3D graphical representation of “actual tilting tables.”

Typically, at this stage, those tilting tables do not yet have any automation or pneumatic but just the stand holding the case that you can push onto a conveyor.  

Most often, we see those tilting tables locally-made from wood or stainless steel and are used to hold the cases so that they’re tilted at an angle. The purpose of tilting the cases is to prevent boxes from falling when placed into the case. 

Another step forward would be adding a box turning feature. 

This box turning feature allows you to rotate your boxes 90° to the left, or 90° to the right, and control your box orientation to meet the requested case packing configuration. If not turned, your boxes would come out standing up which would require you to manually turn them 90° to place them into the case.

So what a box turner really does is present/orient the boxes in a better way for the packing person(s) to facilitate the packing.

With the implementation of all the previous steps, you would now have the most common “Packing Help” or “Packing Aid” machine within the Manual category: A Collecting Table. 

Displayed below is an image of a Collecting Table in action from one of our clients: 

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A Collecting Table that we saw during one of our client visits.

Bobst’s Handypack GT, KBA Duran's Omega Pack Station and Tünkers' FAS 480 are some examples of the most widely present Collecting Tables in Western countries.

At IMPACK, our Collecting Table is the “Packing Help Station.

The most popular Collecting Tables on the market all have a right angle on the left or the right with a box turning feature and some form of tilting table (whether a basic table or an actual tilting table). 

The tilting table’s level of automation always depends on the product specifications of each respective company.

Some offer more capabilities than others. Ask your folder-gluer packer manufacturer about their tilting table’s specifications and level of automation.

But just like with the traditional manual packing process, you still have to pack your boxes by hand on the Collecting Table and do the case flap closing, taping and ejecting yourself. It’s full manual work with no case management involved. 

In other words, although Collecting Tables present the boxes in a better way for the packing person to pack the boxes into the case, they are not automated and have no automation of any form. If a company offers automated case flap-closing and taping with their Collecting Tables, then those are additional configurations that come from third party suppliers. 

Collecting Tables generally have no automation and involve full manual work. In short, Collecting Tables simply serve as packing help/aid to the traditional manual packing process.

Being able to manage a complete row of boxes in one single motion, rather than by limited batches, is the ultimate tipping point between the manual and semi-auto category. 

For example, the capability of moving 200 boxes into a case — in one single motion — instead of moving multiple, small batches of 50 boxes, or as many as your hands would allow you to lift, is the very first step towards semi-automation.

Knowing that, the integration of case sealing into your packing process is what pushes the needle into the semi-auto category. 

Finally, incorporating pneumatic tilting tables that push the case sealer where you press on a button or push on a peddle would arguably position you at the highest end of the manual category.

This can then be followed by additional configurations, such as adding case management systems, flap folding units and going up all the way up to semi-automated packers like our Ergosa series.

  • 🚀 Quick summary: Manual packing is where the entire packing process is done manually. Adding peripheral devices like accumulation conveyors, actual tilting tables, box turners, etc. would serve as a “packing help” or “packing aid” to offer your operators better handling of the boxes. That said, Collecting Tables include no automation, no case management and is full manual work. The most popular packing help/aid is the Collecting Table. IMPACK’s Collecting Table is the “Packing Help Station.”

2. Semi-Automated Packing

We start talking about a semi-automated process once the folder-gluer packer includes at least one automated functionality. 

This means that the operator of a semi-automatic packer remains the key factor of the packing process, but with the help of at least one auto feature.

For example, with IMPACK’s Ergosa packer, this auto feature is the case management system. That is, the Ergosa is semi-automatic because it includes an automated case management process.

🔎 Related: What is an Ergosa Packer & How Can It Improve My Packing Process?

Ergosa A azul cortado-1

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).

The first automation step within this category would be, by default, case management i.e. having an automated way of ejecting the case, folding the flaps (manually or automatically) and feeding it to the case sealer.

You could argue that having multiple manual Collecting Tables where all the filled cases, from each station, converge to one automated case sealer that manages the flaps is also a semi-auto packer. 

We could agree with that. It’s certainly a valid argument and is something we very commonly see in our visits to clients’ sites. 

But leveraging the versatility of a human being on a Collecting Table does not stop at the case management. There are a multitude of ways to further push the scope of your automation and boost your folder-gluer productivity

Some examples include having an automatic pusher to fill the cases, integrating an automatic counting and separating device to keep the count of boxes, adding an automatic batch inverting module for crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes, incorporating a case erector machine, etc.

Some semi-auto packers are more automated than others. 

Given that there are hardly any known folder-gluer packers on the market that could be classified as a semi-auto packer, we’ll use our semi-automatic packer, the Ergosa, as an example.

There are two versions within the Ergosa series: Ergosa A and Ergosa C.

The Ergosa A offers 2 packing modes: 

  1. The “Horizontal Mode” for small to medium-sized boxes including straight lines, 4-corners and 6-corners with multi-row, multi-layer packing capabilities.
  2. The “Pick & Place (or Manual) Mode” for complex boxes that require constant adjustments and corrections, as well as, crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes.

The Ergosa C offers the same 2 packing modes above + 1 additional optional packing mode and several additional benefits:

  1. The “Vertical Mode” with the PerPack Module for medium to large-sized boxes including straight lines, 4-corners, 6-corners and crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes (if paired with an MFA Batch Inverting Module) with one or two-row(s), one-layer packing capabilities.
🔍 Related: What Are the Ergosa Packer’s Main Packing Modes & What Benefits Do They Offer?

The versatility and modularity of the Ergosa packer gives you the flexibility to custom-configure your machine and increase the scope of your automation through the addition and omission of multiple modes and options.

This means that you have the capability of adding and removing any of those aforementioned modes based on your production requirements. This way you never have to pay for a specific mode that you would never really use.

Thus, with each additional mode (Horizontal Mode, Vertical Mode and Pick & Place Mode) and(or) custom-configuration that is added, you increase the scope of your automation within the semi-auto category. 

Once you’ve added all three modes (or a combination of them), you can further increase your level of automation by integrating an INTRO Module to the Ergosa for separation. This allows you to fully automate the counting and separating of your boxes.

The highest level of automation within the semi-auto category would be adding an MFA batch inverting Module to the Ergosa C packer in Vertical Mode to process crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes. 

This is where you can truly leverage the dexterity of an operator.

Crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes can come in different shapes, varieties, types and sizes with so many possibilities of interlocks and so many ways by which you can move the boxes.

Hence, having a robot manage all this without failure is almost impossible. 

Well — maybe not “impossible” per se, given that in 2020, NASA already launched a spacecraft to Mars but it’s challenging, expensive and only fitting for specific types of productions.

So, there’s absolutely no way that you could process complex boxes (like crash-lock/auto-bottom boxes) with the budget range of a semi-automatic packer using an automatic packer.

The more you try to automate a human, the more complex and costly it gets.

This is what leads us into the auto category!

  • 🚀 Quick summary: A semi-auto packer is a folder-gluer packer that offers a semi-automated packing process. It includes at least one automated function and the operator is still the key factor of the packing process, but with the help of at least one auto feature. 

The versatility and modularity of a semi-auto packer allows you to custom-configure your machine, and increase its level of automation, according to your production objectives. The “Ergosa” is IMPACK’s semi-automatic packer with the performance of an automatic packer, and is our most sold folder-gluer packer.

 🔎 Related: What is Difference between Collecting Tables and the Ergosa Packer?

3. Automated Packing

Time for some complete and raw honesty:

The truth is, a lot of clients get very excited when companies propose and discuss automation and full automation solutions. 

And it can be an easy sale for us, folder-gluer packer manufacturers, driven by the client’s pure temptation of having a robot doing the whole job, but that’s the perception in theory. 

In practice, things are very different, and we want to make sure that you’re aware of this before you commit to any gluer packer manufacturer.

You can add as many automatic features as you want to a semi-auto packer, but the reality is that as long as the operator is actively involved in the packing process, it’s still a semi-automated process.

Now, it becomes an automated process once the involvement of an operator is strictly limited to background tasks such as feeding the folder-gluer packer with empty cases or managing full cases.

Although their involvement is limited, the operator is still there. Humans are still part of the auto process.

And if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re probably misinformed. 

Whether for efficiency or ergonomic reasons, a human is still present and working hard in an auto process.

Yes — all the groundwork, including putting all the boxes into the case is now automatically done by the machine, but just like with a semi-auto process, the operator is still there in an auto process.

They are still on site,

They are still part of the cost,

They are still on the payroll,

It’s the same person with the same job title under the same job description doing (more or less) the same job.

And this applies to IMPACK’s Virtuo packer or any of the other popular auto packers on the market like the CartonPack, Diana Packer or J-Pack.

So, here’s an interesting question for you 👇:

If the operator is required for the operation of an auto-packer – just like they are with a semi-auto packer – and you’re capable of reaching the same speed of an auto packer with a semi-auto packer, why would you pay a higher price for an auto packer?

There is no packer on the market that can fully copy a human’s 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 undeniably correct.

But it’s important for you to know that with those projects, the scope is very clearly defined, always the same, never changing and always accurate and perfect.

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 just cannot automate every action a human does.

We organize everything around the folder-gluer packer so that the process is as automated and efficient as possible, but we rely on the human 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. 

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: A critical point to acknowledge.

  • 🚀 Quick summary: An auto packer is a folder-gluer packer that offers an automated packing process. The machine becomes the key factor of the packing process and the operator is now limited to performing background tasks such as feeding the packer with empty cases or managing full cases. 

That said, the operator is still permanently present and required to operate the auto packer, just like they are with a semi-auto packer, except that the process is more automated with less versatility but more performance. The “Virtuo” is IMPACK’s auto packer.

4. Fully-Automated Packing

Virtuo+ACF-1

IMPACK’s Fully-automatic packer: The Virtuo Packer + Automatic Case Feeder (ACF).

This is the “holy grail” of automation where everything runs by itself — quite literally.

In other words, the whole packing process becomes automatically managed without requiring the presence of an operator (or other humans) while running. 

So, going full-auto would mean automating what the human was previously doing in the auto process which is to place the empty cases into the machine. 

In the full-auto process, 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. But once the machine is set up and running, the operator can move to higher value-added activities. 

The investment here can be exponential because a human can always do things that a machine cannot, or can but at a drastically higher cost. 

🔎 Related: How Much Does a Folder-Gluer Packer Cost?

But more critically, going full-auto won’t make you go faster. That is a very common misconception.

Why?

In a fully-auto process, you are, in essence, automating the human that just used to put empty cases into the machine. 

This operator was never really a bottleneck so the folder-gluer packer would never be limited by this person who’s simply putting empty cases into the machine.

The packer was already doing everything else automatically in the auto process and removing that operator who simply fills the cases won’t make you go any faster. You would run at the same speed but with better performance.

  • 🚀 Quick summary: A fully-auto packer is the highest level of automation where your entire packing process becomes fully-automated. No human presence required.

The machine fills itself with empty cases then takes them and seals them fully automatically without requiring the presence of an operator. A fully-auto process won’t make you run faster but rather at the same speed with better performance. The “Virtuo + ACF” is IMPACK’s fully auto packer, and the only 100% fully automatic folder-gluer packer that exists on the market for both corrugated and carton boards.

Which Folder-Gluer Packer Is Best For You?

Which is Better

The answer to this question is far from an easy “one-size-fits-all” response. 

It all depends on your product mix, type of production, box configuration, individual needs and a set of intertwined factors.

A Collecting Table (manual packing) is usually the default choice clients go for when there’s not much thought or analysis being factored into the decision making process. 

At this stage, clients would have usually tried everything to increase their folder-gluer productivity without investing but their folder-gluer has hit its maximum potential.

You see, no matter how much you organize your workflows, standardize your machine setups and optimize your production sequences, there will come a point where your folder-gluer will hit maximum speed and there’s nothing you can do to make that machine run faster without additional solutions.

It’s simply inevitable.

Hence, the first step a client would take is adding a packing help/aid to their traditional manual packing process such as a Collecting Table. And this decision is very often done under the thought process of “everyone else has it, so let’s buy it.” 

No questions asked.

If you have small production runs with a lot of changes per shift, and you’ve never had any “packing help” or “packing aid,” then a Collecting Table like IMPACK’s Packing Help Station — or the other Collecting Tables on the market —  could be a great first step to help facilitate your packing process by better presenting/orienting your boxes for your packing person(s). 

Now, there will come a point where your Collecting Table will become limited by its manual functionality which is really the tipping point from manual packing to semi-auto packers.

That said, you can push your Collecting Table to do more than what they are doing. In other words, all Collecting Tables can be easily adapted to make them semi-automated.

Most companies won’t do it though because, naturally, they want you to opt for the semi-auto or auto packers that come with a much higher price tag.

But it is certainly possible, easy and inexpensive. 

At IMPACK, we are not exclusive to a specific category.

Yes — we do standardize our machines to keep volume and production cost under control, but we are not exclusive from a technical standpoint. 

If you prefer to expand the capabilities of your Collecting Table instead of investing in a new machine, we are open and willing to help you do whatever you feel is best for you.

What we very commonly see are clients that start with a Collecting Table and once they get limited by the manual process, they themselves try to automate those solutions by adding auto features. 

Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they fail, and sometimes they come to us because they failed.

Now if you have a wide range of boxes, complex boxes, or a diverse product mix that requires constant adjustments and corrections, a semi-auto packer like IMPACK’s Ergosa could be an ideal solution.

And the tipping point from semi-auto to auto is the same as that from manual to semi-auto. This is because there’s not really a transition between semi-auto to auto. Usually, a client starts with a manual process then goes either the semi-auto path or the auto path.

If you have longer production runs, easy products and all the requirements for auto then you can go the auto path. 

And then to further improve efficiency and remove all humans involved, you can go fully auto. But this depends on whether you have the right conditions, the required floor space, the flexible budget and the perfect product mix.

Your forecasted ROI and product mix (both existing and predicted future mix) will be the key deciding factors that justify which investment will yield you the best payback for your company.

Now that we’ve broken down the 4 different levels of automation and discussed their differences, your next steps would be:

  1. Compare Manual, Semi-Auto, Auto and Fully-Auto folder-gluer packers and find out which is best for your production.

  2. Learn how much a folder-gluer packer could cost you and what factors drive the cost up or down.