Nearly all Americans know they live in a digital world right now. And that’s affecting packaging, according to PMMI’s “The Evolution of Automation” report, conducted by Chicago-based research firm DDR Communications.

“The key term we’re hearing about is ‘automation,’” said Donna Ritson, owner of DDR. “From machine automation to software automation to data acquisition, every company we talked to is acquiring data in an automatic way.”

Another hot area is robotics technology, according to the report, which was presented at Pack Expo Las Vegas, being held Sept. 25-27. Ms. Ritson also pointed out the increase in the use of virtual or augmented reality.

In the report, DDR asked participants, which included end-users of packaging equipment in the food, beverage, personal care and pharma industries, to identify how they are currently using packaging technology and how they plan to integrate into their operations in the future.

Participants pinpointed the main challenges in advancing equipment automation, such as data acquisition and cooperation with departments such as I.T. for integration. On that note, cyber security tops the list of concerns when introducing new technology into a manufacturing operation.

“Rightly so— it’s one of the biggest hurdles companies need to get past, especially with all the breeches we hear about now,” Ms. Ritson said.

Aside from challenges, manufacturers have also named some of the opportunities available in packaging, from a producer standpoint as well as O.E.M.

“There’s no doubt that the industry is growing,” Ms. Ritson said. “When we talk to end users, many of them tell us that their budgets are increasing.”

In some cases, she said, those budget bumps are to increase automation. In others, it’s simply to bolster technology overall.

Changing over to automation for data collection helps heighten efficiency, Ms. Ritson said.

“Now they can look at the plant floor data differently,” she said. “They can get it on their smart phone, they can get it on their tablet or interactively, they can go to the edge or get it on the cloud, and now they become a totally interactive, informed manufacturing facility.”

So, what can food manufacturers gain from moving toward packaging and processing automation? According to Ms. Ritson, it’s worth looking as far as 10 years into the future.

“Some are saying, ‘We’re already there; we’re collecting that data and putting it in the cloud.’ Many of the larger companies have started the race, and they’re already there,” Ms. Ritson said. “Some of the smaller companies are actually pretty close to that mark, and some of the larger ones are behind. So it’s a matter of how fast they can move in the next five years.”

However, over the next decade, Ms. Ritson predicted that the bulk of manufacturers will be automating data collection and analysis as well as robotics usage in packaging.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that technology is going to replace jobs, she cautioned. It just means jobs will look much different.

“We don’t know what that will look like in 10 years,” Ms. Ritson said. “Think back 10 years … we couldn’t have predicted all the new jobs we have today thanks to what technology has done.”

It’s important to note that change doesn’t happen overnight; it’s often gradual. In fact, most current manufacturing equipment will require updating before it will require maintenance. Bakery producers will soon seek solutions for automating existing equipment, Ms. Ritson said.

“How easy is it to automate equipment that’s already in place?” she asked. “Can it be changed? Does it just need to have some sensors put on it for data collection? There can be so many different reasons for why and how that’s going to happen.”

To update existing machines, Ms. Ritson suggested that I.T. must be involved from the early stages.

“Some companies have already mastered ways to bring departments together to send data out and make it available,” she said.

To embrace the leap toward automation, Ms. Ritson suggested that manufactures need to “think broader, think bigger and think futuristically.”

To access the executive summary of the report, click here.