Packing Machines

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Packing machines perform the essential function of grouping together groups of products for transit and storage. Products are grouped together in cases, trays, crates and cartonboard sleeves: 

  • to make handling easier
  • for more efficient transport 
  • to facilitate storage and stacking 
  • to protect the products 

What is the meaning of ‘packing machine’? 

Packing machines covered here fall principally into the category of secondary packaging. 

Primary packaging covers packaging of naked products into containers of multiple kinds. There is a huge choice of primary packaging options, designed for products of all kinds – solids, granules, liquids and gases – in sectors ranging from fresh food and drink to industrial chemicals and construction materials. Find out more in our guide to packaging.

Secondary packaging collates primary packages in containers such as cartons and trays, and is the end of line operation which packs and seals groups of cartons, boxes and trays ready for transport or storage. (This last stage is sometimes referred to as tertiary packaging or outer transport cases).

PPMA member companies supply packing machines of all kinds, including complete packing lines.     

See a full list of PPMA member companies who supply Packing Machines.

Which sectors use packing machines?

Packing machines are used throughout the consumer goods sector and also by organisations supplying non-consumer clients. They are generally at the end of packaging and production lines, at the last stage before storage and transport. Virtually every type of product is packed in groups at this end-of-line stage.  

What types of machinery are used in packing?

Container Erecting Machines

Container or carton erecting machines form a packaging container from cartonboard blanks (flat card) into a carton, skillet, tray or sleeve. Shapes are normally rectangular, but the increasing demands of the packaging industry have driven innovation into irregular and bespoke shapes as well.

For cases, cartons and trays, the equipment is designed to close pre-cut tabs in a blank board into slots to create a structurally sound container which can then be filled either with raw product or packages. Flaps are secured by applying adhesive or by heating if they are pre-coated. Cartons and other types of container created on a carton erector are usually sealed in film ready for shipping.

Explore PPMA Member Companies who provide advice and solutions for Carton Erecting Machines.

Container Loading and Unloading

Once a container has been constructed, there is the requirement to fill it. A key technology is drop packing, which involves lowering products vertically into a carton or other container. Drop packing usually uses gravity to a greater or lesser degree to place products. Packaging lines are configured to drop the right number of products – pouches, bottles or any other type of pack – to fill the carrier carton. Drop packing is also known as vertical packing and is commonplace in primary packaging for filling containers with liquids and free-flowing powders and grains.

Place packing involves the controlled placement of products into a container, without utilising gravity. Place packing equipment almost always features one or more robotic arms which accurately place the products or packages in secondary packaging. Among the benefits of robots is that they can perform the same task repetitively at a constant speed and accuracy. Robot technology offers a choice of types of gripper, including suction pads which do not damage pack surfaces.

Place unpacking reverses the above process, with robotic arms removing the contents of a container. Arms with suction pads or grippers are used to lift products out of the container, and place them where required.

Horizontal packing is used to fill containers on a level plane, and usually utilises conveyor belts or a mechanical pushing arm or a combination of both. 

Container Sealing

Once a container is filled it needs to be sealed for security and to prevent contamination or degradation of the contents. 

Sealing options include case gluing. Wet glue is applied to the flaps of the container and dried either by heat or over time at ambient temperatures.

Tape is commonly used to seal cartons. The primary approach is to use pressure sensitive tape dispensed by the packing machinery or by hand. The tape is then rolled or pressed to create a durable lock between the pairs of flaps at the top or base of the carton. Pregummed tape operates in a similar way, but is generally sealed by heat. 

Case stapling is a robust way of binding overlapping parts of board, or of fastening two separate pieces of board together. A powerful stapling machine is used to insert and close staples in appropriate parts of the carton. Stapling does not seal a pack in the same way as tape or film, so may allow water ingress.

Package Form Fill and Seal (PFFS)

Form fill seal (FFS) packing is a continuous process where the container is created, then moved into the filling area before going on to be sealed. Automated high volume packing lines almost invariably use FFS.

Plastic ringing, used for creating a 4-pack or 6-pack of canned drinks, has been one of the beverage industry’s staple uses of FFS. However, increasing concern about the environmental damage caused by plastic ringing has seen a significant move into the use of recyclable alternatives to plastic including board and compostable materials.

Wraparound packaging is another type of FFS. Wraparound packing machines take cartonboard or other material and folds it around products. The advantage is that containers do not have to be pre-formed before filling, and the approach can be highly cost-effective. Equipment options exist for the creation of wraparounds in the form of cases and trays.

Package Handling

Handling equipment is a key consideration for packing operations, in particular in the use of trays. Apart from FFS packing lines, most packing operations receive trays nested together. Before filling, the trays need to be separated and laid out on a conveyor to pass under filling nozzles or hoppers. Tray denesting equipmentgenerally uses suction pads to lift single trays out of a nest and to place them in position for filling.

Tray stacking equipment takes the filled and sealed trays and lifts them on top of one another to create a stack of the required height for packing and transport. 

On a larger scale, stacking and unstacking equipment for crates and baskets operates in a similar way to tray stacking, using mechanical systems to arrange crates for filling with bakery or other products. The empty trays are stacked using the same equipment in reverse.   

Packing FAQs

What is sustainable packing?

Sustainability is a major issue for all types of packing and packaging. The prevalence of cartonboard does not pose environmental challenges in the same way as plastics and films, and it is here that a major drive towards recyclable, recycled and compostable or biodegradable materials is taking place. The momentum behind the move to more environmentally responsible packaging comes from consumers, legislators and the packaging industry itself. 

Packing machinery can generally handle recyclable materials, although there can be challenges in using materials such as recyclable or lighter films with lower stress tolerances than standard films. The key drive is in the development of eco-friendly materials, and equipment manufacturers who work closely with material suppliers are designing machinery which will perform to the highest standards with all types of films, boards and trays. 

How do I choose a packing machine? 

Every packing machine purchase needs to be based on its usage and a commercial budget. The role of the machine in your operation needs clear definition in terms of:

  • which products are to be packed?

  • is the equipment for primary or secondary packing, or both?

  • do you require flexibility to handle a range of products?

  • which packing materials are to be used?

  • what throughput and capacity do you need?

  • will the new equipment need to be integrated with existing machinery?

  • where will the machine be located and what floor space is required?

  • what are your cost and ROI targets?

The above considerations will help you to specify your machine, at which point you should start gathering information from equipment suppliers. PPMA members offer an extensive range of packing equipment and company details can be found here.

What is auto packing? 

Automation in packing is very well established, and offers the advantages of high output, accuracy, continual operation and low labour costs. The key elements of packing automation are: 

  • programmable controls

  • end-to-end operation

  • automatic checking and quality control

  • robotic or mechanical handling

  • production of finished, ready-to-ship packages 

Form fill seal (FFS) machines are the mainstay of automated packing, and are available as standalone systems or can be assembled through a combination of equipment handling different processes.

Semi-automatic packing is also frequently used to allow manual input for operations which machinery may not be able to handle. Visual inspection by trained staff, for example, is used in many packing businesses. 

How many products can be packed together?

The number of products packed together can range from very few to many. Bottled drinks, for example, are frequently packed in cartons of 6 or 12 bottles, or, for smaller bottles and cans, in trays of 24 or 48. Trays are frequently used for tinned foods in groups of 12, 24 or more. 

Automated packing machines (principally FFS machines) are available which will count out and place the right number of products for each container, then close, seal or wrap the container. Conveyors are normally used to take the packs to a palletiser for storage or transport. Semi-automatic equipment is in common use, involving some manual handling, for example, placing packs in the container by hand.

Packing machines for solid products, such as bottles and cans are usually designed to place and pack products in regular rows. A cartonboard case of 12 bottles for example will be packed in 4x3 arrangement. Small cosmetic bottles may be packed on a tray in a 12x9 layout, then shrink wrapped. The key considerations are whether the packs are: 

  • robust

  • can be handled manually or by machine as required

  • ready for storage

  • ready for transport

Find Packing Machine suppliers with PPMA Group

See a full list of PPMA Member companies who supply a comprehensive range of packing machines.