When integrating assembly lines with packaging lines, manufacturing engineers face some critical strategic and operational challenges.

"Strategically, competitive pressures and consumer preferences drive ever-increasing packaging variations, with shorter runs and more frequent changeovers," says Tony Barr, product marketing manager for modular conveyor systems at Bosch Rexroth Corp. (Buchanan, MI). "This, in turn, requires that process design [and] machine selection be aligned with strategic imperatives and market objectives.

"The operational implications are clear," adds Barr. "Manufacturing engineers must ensure that production lines are sufficiently agile to respond to customer requirements and to capitalize on every market opportunity. All of this, of course, must be accomplished in strict accordance with cost-containment and product quality standards."

Manufacturing engineers should avoid thinking that assembly and packaging are so fundamentally dissimilar that they are completely distinct disciplines. "The elemental business challenge--minimizing production inputs while maximizing salable output-- is common to both assembly and packaging," Barr points out. "The optimal approach to fusing the two disciplines is first to [look at assembly and packaging] as a single, integrated value chain driven by market preferences. The key to success is to organize assembly and packaging automation processes to ensure the best possible material flow.

"If visions of assembly and packaging are not operationally complementary, process design will not produce optimal material flow--and, consequently, cost and quality will suffer," warns Barr. "[Machine builders] and systems integrators that embrace this vision, and have applications experience in both assembly and packaging environments, are in a unique position to guide assembly operations through this transition."