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Vision Packs Power into Common Packaging Applications

POSTED 08/04/2008  | By: WInn Hardin, Contributing Editor

First place is nice. Runner-up isn’t too bad either, but don’t think third place on the top-10 list of machine vision’s largest markets is small potatoes. Packaging remains one of the most active markets for machine vision.

“When you think of packaging, classically you think of container and bottle inspection,” explains David Dechow, President and Founder of Aptura Machine Vision Solutions (Lansing, Michigan).

Container inspection, including bottle, can, etc., is generally considered the largest type of “packaging inspection,” accounting for approximately $69.3 million in revenue in 2007, according to AIA Director of Market Analysis, Paul Kellett. Packaging applications also account for the majority of pharmaceutical applications, which represented an additional $60.8 million market opportunity last year, according to Kellett. 

But packaging also applies to consumer goods, often where branding is an important part of the package – particularly in certain regions of the world where local cultures place great importance on branding, and the quality of the external package. Finally, as machine vision systems’ capability increases, systems used to inspect labels and packaging can also inspect the product going into the packaging. And sometimes, the package itself is the product.

Package Drivers
Packaging applications in search of an automated vision solution can take on different flavors depending on the product/industry and local culture, but there are some common drivers for this market segment.

“Essentially, where there is a large degree of product liability or risk to brand protection from the packaging, machine vision is becoming a key component to that industry,” explains Randy Kemmerer of the Sensors and Communications business unit of Siemens (Nashua, New Hampshire). “If the company is packaging seafood, for instance, or ice cream, and an almond goes into an ice cream container, mislabeling can mean that a customer could get this product, mistakenly eat it, and suffer health consequences as a result. This represents a supply chain with significant product liability. At the same time, if a single incident like this hits the national news, it can really damage the brand.”

Beverage industries are, of course, a good example of a food industry that has both liability and a need to protect branding. High-end cosmetics, where the package is part of the allure of the product, is another good example.

VITRONIC (Louisville, Kentucky) recently illustrated how performance improvements in vision systems are helping to drive vision deeper into manufacturing using packaging equipment as the open door. The application called for inspecting cosmetic “compacts” containing face powder and eye shadow. Traditional solutions would have only read the OCR code to track the number of compacts produced and bundled for shipping, but VITRONIC’s VINSPEC application uses 4 cameras to read the lot codes as well as check for the presence of a powder puff, applicator, brush, sponge and protective film. According to Bärbel Weinert, Marketing & PR specialist at VITRONIC, the system helps to protect the brand of the cosmetic company by preventing the delivery of incorrectly or incompletely packed cosmetic products.

Aptura’s Dechow has enjoyed some recent success by combining label inspection with foam cup product inspection. “When you look at why vision is penetrating into packaging and manufacturing, there’s a general statement that it’s because the cost of the technology is dropping, but it’s also because companies can combine multiple inspections into a quality program,” notes Dechow. “For instance, we’re not just counting foam cups and checking labels, we’re also making sure that the rims are not chipped, for instance. These are pretty high speed inspections, but even at these rates, we now have the processing power and algorithms to do multiple inspections, even at high speeds.”

Moving to the Front
As a brand accrues its own equity and value, the quality of packaging material itself becomes increasingly important. “We don’t always think of consumer packaging, but it’s a growing application area,” Dechow says. “We’re seeing more plastic web inspection, and verifying thermoseals of the plastic. Did the right number of products go into the end package, are they positioned properly, and has it been sealed correctly.”

Product packaging is even more important in European and Asian markets, according to Siemens’ Kemmerer. “Quality of packaging is a bigger driver in offshore markets than it is in the U.S.,” explains Kemmerer. “Asian consumers really identify with the brands of the products they use. I’ve seen entire loads of cigarettes be returned because of a few damaged packs.

As the marketplace becomes more global, manufacturers are looking to learn about ways to protect their customers, products and brands. Perhaps its no surprise that more consumer goods companies increasingly take their lead from one of the world’s most regulated industries. “Anywhere improper packaging results in brand damage or liability, we see a lot of the technologies from the pharmaceutical industry translate to these consumer goods industries. Any product with a perceived shelf life, or that may some day be regulated by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration], you’re seeing manufacturers take proactive steps. Cosmetics is one industry; tobacco is another. And we’re not even taking about the impact of counterfeit goods and lost revenues. If 20% of my product out in the marketplace is counterfeit, I’m not only losing revenue, but the value of my brand is also at stake. This represents a serious opportunity for the machine vision industry.”