Streamlining Ecommerce Fulfillment with Packaging Automation

It’s hard to believe that Automate 2023 was months ago. I still remember walking the show floor in awe of all the exhibits. I’ve attended pretty big shows during my media publication days, but Automate had a different vibe, and I’m forever a fan.

While there were a lot of cutting-edge solutions for automating packaging processes within product manufacturing plants, I noticed a lot of innovative ideas and displays that demonstrated how packaging automation can revolutionize ecommerce fulfillment and solve some of the current challenges that face the industry, such as:

• Management of high-order volume spikes and demand fluctuations;
• Quick and reliable delivery operations, including same-day and next-day shipping;
• Efficient inventory, ordering, and returns management;
• Labor-intensive processes;
• Packaging and customization variability.

All of the packaging automation technologies I saw at Automate 2023 offer remarkable opportunities for product manufacturing plants to optimize their ecommerce fulfillment processes. From advanced robotics and pick-and-pack systems to autonomous mobile robots, these technologies provide a lot of benefits, including:

• Enhanced efficiency and speed: Automated systems handle repetitive tasks, such as picking, packing, and labeling, with unmatched precision and consistency. This leads to faster order processing times, reduced chances of delays, and prompt deliveries to customers.

• Improved accuracy and reduced errors: Packaging automation eliminates human errors by employing technologies like bar-code scanners and computer vision systems that verify product information, ensuring that the right items are packaged correctly.

• Customization and scalability: Automated systems allow companies to customize packaging solutions that meet specific needs. Whether it’s choosing the right box sizes, adding personalized branding, or incorporating special packaging materials for fragile items, automation allows for flexibility and scalability, catering to varying order volumes. 

• Cost reduction and sustainability: Packaging automation can lead to cost savings in the long run. Optimized cartonization algorithms ensure that the packaging uses minimal materials, reducing waste and lowering shipping costs. Additionally, the ability to handle larger order volumes with fewer labor sources results in cost efficiency for businesses. Embracing sustainable packaging materials and practices further aligns with eco-conscious consumer demands.

• Real-time tracking and customer satisfaction: Real-time tracking and monitoring systems enable businesses and customers to track their orders at every stage of the fulfillment process, from packaging to delivery. Increased transparency and accurate delivery estimates lead to improved customer satisfaction and loyalty.

• Integration with warehouse management systems: Packaging automation that integrates with warehouse management systems allows for seamless communication and data exchange. This integration streamlines the entire fulfillment process, from inventory management to order processing, reducing manual intervention and streamlining operations.

As the world of ecommerce continues to grow at an unprecedented pace, businesses continue to face pressure to optimize their fulfillment processes. Packaging automation is a crucial component for this optimization, and I saw several solutions at the show that have the potential to revolutionize the way products are prepared and shipped to customers. These solutions will also provide a competitive edge to businesses within a rapidly evolving digital marketplace and overcome some of the challenges they currently face in ecommerce fulfillment.


1. Robotic pick-and-place systems.

I really enjoyed seeing the advanced robotic technologies that were integrated into pick-and-place systems. These robots can efficiently handle, sort, and package products with precision and speed, significantly reducing fulfillment time and errors. They also handle greater volumes than manual methods, freeing up humans to do more strategic tasks.

Also, manual methods involve a lot of repetitive motions with heavy objects that could lead to severe injuries. Pick-and-place solutions can help reduce those types of workplace injuries.

One pick-and-place brand that caught my eye was Mujin’s random bin-picking application, which accurately identified, grasped, and manipulated metal parts from bins and containers. The application combines vision, control, and planning technologies for a unified system that enables users to create a faster and more reliable picking system.


2. Automated cartonization for efficient packaging.

Before becoming a technical writer for industrial manufacturing, I worked at a distribution center for a major office supply brand. I was responsible for picking products off shelves and placing them in boxes. Sometimes, small orders would get placed in big boxes, wasting a lot of real estate, time, and money because they would need to be repackaged at the end of the line before getting shipped out.

I was excited to see some of the automated cartonization systems that optimized box sizes based on the items’ dimensions. Not only do these types of solutions minimize wasted space and reduce shipping costs, they also ensure efficient packaging while enhancing sustainability efforts by using fewer materials.

Another benefit is the reduced time it takes to repackage something that was paired with too big of a box.


3. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

One of my favorite types of robotics I saw at Automate and look forward to seeing at other shows was the Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). These robots can navigate through a manufacturing plant autonomously and complete tasks like carrying products from an assembly line to a packaging area. They are flexible and adaptable, optimizing warehouse space and reducing human intervention. Faster order processing and reduced operational costs are the results.


EXOTEC had a great display of its Skypod system, a cutting-edge robotics goods-to-person solution that transports goods in storage bins or trays between racks and stations. The AMRs:

• Can retrieve any stored bins or trays in less than two minutes.
• Climb up to 39 feet, utilizing every inch of space in a warehouse from the floor to the ceiling.
• Can be added to existing systems within minutes without interrupting operations. 


4. Collaborative robots everywhere.

And, of course, cobots were everywhere, with FANUC and Universal Robots having the most, according to Matt Malloy. He has a complete list of cobot brands that were present at the show.

Cobots are designed to work alongside human operators, enhancing the efficiency and safety of packaging operations. I saw a lot of demonstrations of effective assistants in picking, packing, and labeling tasks that would allow employees to focus on more complex and strategic aspects of fulfillment.


What else is coming?

Regarding future trends and advancements in packaging automation, the main buzzwords I kept hearing were Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, machine interoperability, data, and machine learning. All of these will help packaging manufacturers optimize their processes, reduce downtime, and improve quality control. Analyzing data with the aid of AI can help businesses identify patterns and make predictions that lead to better decisions.

All of these advanced technologies cannot be leveraged without 5G. With 5G, these technologies can help drive process automation, remote monitoring, and virtual training. They also allow manufacturers to adopt an intelligent infrastructure that uses machine learning, prediction, analysis, and self-correction to enhance operational efficiency and facilitate continuous improvement.

As technology continues to evolve, packaging automation will undoubtedly grow, further optimizing the way products are packaged and delivered to customers worldwide. By embracing automation in their fulfillment processes, ecommerce businesses can stay ahead of the curve and provide exceptional customer experiences, fostering long-term success and growth. There is no question that packaging automation is a critical investment for those who seek to excel in the competitive digital marketplace.


Meaghan Ziemba is Principal of Mavens of Manufacturing.