Independent Or Integrated: Box Plants Need To Look At Automation

By Paul Aliprando:

Don’t hold me to these numbers, but they are close enough for a discussion. For the US, the industry produces about 30BSF per month. Eighty percent of this volume is produced by integrated companies that operate 30 percent of the box plants. The remaining 20 percent of production is produced by independents operating 70 percent of the box plants. Yes, it all comes down to volume out the door. I would wager that the 70 percent of plants run by the independents have a higher margin (and possibly higher contribution) than many of the individual integrated plants.

The big guys have the same labor issues as anyone else in the industry. So, they use 50-inch FFG cells running at 330 kpm costing over $9 million with automation – prefeeders, dual slotter, box slitters (660 boxes per minute), double bundlers, automated loadformers and sometimes, dual take-offs. That’s how they can get the volume. However, they still need people. I have spoken to some plants who have 30 percent turnover or giving out bonuses for an employee who stays six months! Some plants (big and small) are going back to past “released” employees and asking them to come back, forgetting whatever had them released. Most times it worked, but others, not so well.

Maybe just five years ago, discussions with some plants about reducing headcount with automation was met with the “can’t justify the labor reduction ROI.” Now these same plants are looking for this equipment because of the labor issues. Scissor lifts and other ergonomic devices were tried but these still require the people. Now customers are looking for prefeeders with powered infeeds for old Wards or even Langstons (try finding two big people to flip and load big sheets into a Langston). The reduced labor can be justified, when there isn’t any around or the cost of the labor increased by over 50 percent. When labor (and freight) was a blip on the operation cost, it is now upwards of double-digit percentage, even with paper at $900+ a ton.

If you are thinking about going with automation, don’t take too long thinking. Some of the ancillary equipment has longer lead times than the press. There is an independent who has two new high speed FFG installed and powered up with concrete holes where the automation will go. Seems like the equipment is about three months behind the presses.  They are “pitching and catching” boxes by hand for now. So much for your ROI.

Let’s try to get more from your operation and cut into the other guy’s volume. Whether you are producing 50K boxes an order or 500, you need to look into automation to relieve some of your labor issues and bottleneck. There are many automation companies, most are advertised within these pages. Talk to them and see how they can help your needs for higher production speeds, lower labor costs and reduced lost time injuries. The box plant of the future starts with the decisions of today!

Paul Aliprando has over 35 years in the industry as an Engineer, Box Sales, Operations, and Equipment Sales. He is recently retired from Sun Automation Group (“Automation” is our middle name!). He can be reached at [email protected]

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