Automation, technology and cost pressures will take centre stage in 2024

2023 was a testing year for the packaging industry with skills and labour challenges prevalent across the sector and continued uncertainty and delays plaguing initiatives including Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme and UK-wide EPR.

The last 12 months did, however, give rise to some incredible new products and innovations as the industry embraced the latest trends concerning sustainable materials and ongoing adoption of automation.

So, what will 2024 bring? Packaging Scotland recently asked a number of stakeholders representing different aspects of the sector to peer into a crystal ball and predict what lies in store.

Following a year of significant growth for the firm’s corrugate production, Pitreavie Packaging MD Stephen Heslop shared his outlook and predictions.

“There is no denying that last year was a more challenging year for most businesses and unfortunately, I expect that many of the issues experienced in the prior year will prevail as we navigate the year ahead,” he said. “Significant increases in interest rates, general inflation and business rate increases due, coupled with political and market uncertainty, the increase of the living wage – albeit the right thing to do to support our people during these economic pressures – 2024 is set to be another tough period across the industry.

Stephen Heslop

“Enhancing engagement across the workforce and building stronger links with educational establishments will be a priority for us and our peers as we look to attract and retain a talented team. I expect we’ll also see an increased requirement for investment in digital technologies to build awareness, drive new customer acquisition and enhance customer interactions.

“Fortunately, we’re well placed to weather this turbulent period with 10% growth expected, further investment in people and technology planned, and a continued focus on providing great customer experience.”

Ross Woodburn, founder and MD of Falkirk-based protective packaging business BUBL Packaging, believes sustainability will remain a key issue for many companies and is also tipping ‘more straightforward’ packaging solutions to be in demand.

“For a lot of businesses, it is a basic requirement now that their packaging is recyclable and has recycled content,” he explained. “Given the economic headwinds, such as the cost-of-living crisis, high interest rates and high inflation I anticipate a move towards two fundamental issues – functionality and cost-effectiveness of packaging.

Ross Woodburn

“Given the huge impact of transit damage on profit margins, especially in e-commerce business, ensuring that the packaging used delivers ever higher levels of product protection will likely be a priority. Packaging spend is a necessary evil for business, so reducing packaging spend will become more important as companies try to protect their profit margins. So, I predict that the focus in 2024 will be more straightforward than in recent years – does the packaging work and is it delivering commercial advantage to our business?”

Stuart Coulton, marketing manager UK and Ireland, OMRON Industrial Automation Europe, believes the UK manufacturing sector is poised for a ‘transformative shift’ in 2024, turning to technology to address labour shortages, meet consumer demand, and make maintenance smarter.

“With 69,000 vacancies in UK manufacturing, companies are turning to collaborative technologies to mitigate labour challenges affordably,” he stated. “Collaborative robots and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) are set to emerge as pivotal solutions, fostering a more adaptable and efficient manufacturing landscape that combines human skills with machine capabilities.

Stuart Coulton

“Data modelling has already optimised efficiency on the factory floor. Now, by identifying subtle defects that elude manual inspection and anticipating natural variations in product appearance, pre-trained AI models are set to tackle another industry challenge: quality control. Using AI alongside traditional inspection systems will minimise the impact of human error, expedite quality management processes, and enhance product quality.

“Poor maintenance damages productivity and profit. Manufacturing companies spend on average 20 hours per week on unscheduled maintenance and over £5,000 on every hour of plant downtime. Smarter maintenance must involve simplifying communication technologies and enhancing data sharing to create greater synergy between IT and shop floor operations. Doing so promises vast benefits, including a Machinery-as-a-Service business model, reduced on-site services, lower-risk warranty extensions, and increased production analytics for continuous process improvement.”

Torsten Giese, marketing manager – PR & exhibitions at packaging machinery manufacturer Ishida Europe, said that with economic challenges, including the cost-of-living and labour costs and shortages, likely to continue well into 2024, many companies will doubtless remain focused on reducing costs and increasing speed and efficiencies in their packing operations.

The Ishida CCW-R2-106-WB Fresh Food Weigher in operation at French food company André Laurent

“This is where the implementation of automated and integrated packing lines can make a difference,” he added. “But regardless of the level of automation, companies will need to ensure that their equipment is reliable and that they have a supplier who is able to provide fast-response service support and spares to minimise downtime and keep production going in the event of any problems. Even in tough times, business opportunities are still there, and it will be those businesses who are best prepared who will be able reap the benefits.”

Endoline MD Andrew Yates explained how automation will support the rise of the co-packers in 2024.

“The UK is one of the biggest hubs for e-commerce, with 60 million users digitally purchasing goods,” he said. “Over a quarter of all retail sales are driven by e-commerce and third-party logistic companies (3PLs) and co-packers are increasingly playing a supporting role to sustain growth and manage fulfilment.

“Offering accurate and efficient end-to-end fulfilment services, co-packing sites are built around flexibility and agility. We are witnessing an increase in demand for automated and robotic solutions from co-packers and believe that this trend will gain traction, particularly as warehouse labour shortages continue to impact the sector.

“Automation is helping co-packers remain agile and responsive to evolving customer needs, and flexible, random solutions will become increasingly sought after to ensure maximum return on investment is achieved. Systems that can manage a multitude of high-speed product runs, regardless of size, will not only streamline operations but ensure that the co-packer can increase capacity.

“Demand for energy-efficient automation will also grow as customers push ahead with sustainable objectives. Systems which enable instant acceleration and deceleration while only using power when needed.”