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What does Industry 4.0 mean for the packaging industry? The fourth industrial revolution – often referred to as Industry 4.0 or 4IR – is here.

Packaging expert and PR Guru to Packaging Innovations; Jo Stephenson reports on hot topics: This month she looks at Industry 4.0. Jo is a regular contributor to industry events, webinars and podcasts with excellent presentation skills. She offers insights to the needs and challenges of the packaging industry and is regularly called upon to comment, bring contacts together and facilitate discussions to support the industry.

It’s impossible to pin down a precise moment in time when it sparked into life, as this revolution is a journey that is only in its first steps. Along the course of this journey, it promises rapid acceleration of business through technology interconnectivity and next generation automation. Digitalisation, cloud-based technology, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) solutions, and even the nascent metaverse offer the packaging industry new frontiers to explore. Artificial intelligence and 5G – with the even-faster 6G on the horizon – are set to deliver the potential for organisations to thrive through streamlined, connected processes.

This is set to minimise – and in many cases eliminate – human intervention, imbuing processes with greater resilience and improving productivity. It means the packaging sector can find new ways to embed sustainability into core operations as new hyper-personalised experiences and intelligent products, processes, and services become the norm across the industry. What was once the preserve of science fiction writers will soon be a reality – it falls to the packaging industry to prepare for that reality.

By digitising every step of a business process, companies can reimagine their entire product lifecycle, from concept to production to aftermarket servicing if required. It sounds great, but is the packaging industry ready for that change? Are we digging the foundations of industry 4.0 in our businesses today to ensure we can build a platform for future success in this new world – especially when considering the challenges presented to the industry in the last two years?

But for a few exceptions, the answer has to be no. Automating individual machines or process capabilities is common, but the industry still isn’t ready for the joined up, hyper-connected, data-driven world of Industry 4.0.

It is true that printing, converting and packing machines are getting faster, more consistent, versatile, and user friendly. However, the connected workflow across machines, business functions and the physical world, linking customers and suppliers, is still found wanting at a time when it is sorely needed.

The volatility of the last few years has made it clear that digitising, automating, and connecting processes provides more stability and reliability to our supply chains. So, what is holding the industry back?

Today’s ageing, risk-averse workforce in the packaging industry in particular means the IT-literate, skilled leadership required to deliver the programme can often be missing too, meaning the culture change needed to embrace new technology and new working patterns can be daunting. The industry already has skilled labour shortages – adding new IT requirements to the mix can feel like a step too far in what is already a challenging market environment.

When combined with worries over the impact on labour, having a lack of skills to handle the ‘new world’ can mean businesses resist change. However, digitisation doesn’t necessarily mean making workforces redundant today (although the jury is still out on longer term effects of technological unemployment1). Rather, it leads to the elimination of waste in all its forms – physical, time-related, over-processing, motion, and defects – while creating a more streamlined, efficient and satisfying work environment.

The reality is that the packaging industry is ready for change. Digital disruption is here. The only question is how to make the best of it.

The industry already has some great OEMs and software suppliers leading the way, creating the seamless communication needed across sites, geographies, departments, functions and assets. What we need now are more brave leaders with a clear understanding of what can be achieved and how, and Industry 4.0 can quickly become a reality delivering the competitiveness, resilience and versatility that today’s industry so badly needs.

Hear from some of these leaders for yourself at Packaging Innovations & Empack, Featuring Contract Pack & Fulfilment, held February 15 & 16 2023 at Birmingham NEC. Attendee tickets are available to book now, for free – just click the REGISTER NOW button at the top of this page

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Latest news from Packaging Innovations & Empack