Friday, September 7, 2012

Training Packaging Machinery Technicians

Customer service is a big part of manufacturing packaging machinery, and the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) recently found that less than 50% of end users were satisfied with the number and availability of knowledgeable service technicians. While packaging machinery manufacturers are surely responsible for part of this low level of satisfaction, the technology behind packaging machinery and expectations also serve to keep the number of end users satisfied with service low.

As technology improves, the role of a service technician necessarily changes. While service technicians have historically played the role of a mechanic, expectations now require much more than just these skills. Computers and PLC's play a larger role in packaging machinery today than they ever have before. In addition, customers expect to find a company today to integrate different packaging machinery from a number of manufacturers. These two simple expectations completely redefine "knowledgeable" as used for a service technician.

Imagine a packaging line that consists of a power conveyor system, bottle unscrambler, liquid filling machine, capping machine and a wrap labeler. In almost all cases, there will be multiple machine manufacturers, in some cases a different manufacturer for each individual piece of equipment. When it comes time to install the packaging machinery for the end user, the job will likely fall to a single manufacturer or a company that specializes in the installation of packaging machinery. In other words, there will not be five separate technicians at the installation in most cases, but rather one or two installers from a single company. It logically follows, then, that the technician must understand not only the packaging machinery manufactured by his or her own company, but all of the packaging machinery on the line. In essence, the definition of "knowledgeable" has just expanded by about a factor of five.

Of course, the first solution that comes to mind when seeing a low percentage of satisfied end users is to simply hire more knowledgeable service technicians. However, the hiring practices of packaging machinery manufacturers probably has less to do with the end users satisfaction than most would think at first glance. Service technicians become knowledgeable first and foremost through experience. The more machinery a technician has the opportunity to service, the more knowledge they acquire. But there exists a massive amount of information for packaging machinery service technicians to acquire. Keep in mind the example noted above and expand it one more step. Consider for a moment just the manufacturer of the liquid filling machine. Assume over the course of a year the company manufactures one hundred filling machines. It would not come as a surprise if no two of the one hundred machines were identical. Each liquid filler, and for the most part each piece of packaging machinery, will be slightly different - or even entirely different - from the last one manufactured. This is due in part to different products and different packaging. It may take years for the technician of the filling machine to become truly knowledgeable regarding every aspect of filling equipment. However, end users now expect this technician to not only be able to install the filler and work on the mechanical aspects of the equipment, but to have the knowledge necessary to program PLC's and correctly wire machinery when necessary. This is expected not only for the filling machine, but for the other packaging equipment on the line as well. And rightfully so, the end user is entitled to knowledgeable help if the equipment at the heart of their business does not meet performance standards.

So if the lack of knowledgeable service technicians is not due to the unwillingness of manufacturers to hire technicians, how do we fight against the low number of end users satisfied with the service they receive? There are actually a couple of new trends that may help to bring the numbers up if utilized correctly. First, many schools in the United States now recognize packaging as an important industry in the United States and globally. More and more schools are offering degrees in Packaging and Packaging Science. Experience in the classroom working with common components and machinery will bring new recruits to the packaging field armed with a background that never before existed. While different schools may offer different curriculums, one can only hope that some of the classes will focus on packaging machinery and what makes them work. Not only could this lead to a greater number of knowledgeable service technicians but to innovation in the classroom brought to the manufacturing floor.

Another new tool that may be used to boost the knowledge level of service technicians is virtual packaging machinery. Though now being looked at as a tool for end users, allowing them to work with packaging machines on a computer screen, the potential exists for such technology to be used in the manufacturing arena or in the classroom. Allowing technicians to hop on a computer and operate, changeover and otherwise learn a packaging machine can lead to more efficient service once at the end users plant. It also allows another avenue for technicians to acquire the knowledge expected by the end users.

The job of a service technician in the packaging industry is formidable, to say the least. In the end, cooperation between manufacturers in the packaging industry must continue in order to provide satisfactory service to the end users of all packaging machines. However, education and innovative training tools can be added to the cooperation in order to further improve service in the industry.

For more information on Service Issues and Expectations in the Packaging Industry, see PMMI's January 2012 Executive Summary.

Erik M. Arndt has spent his Packaging Industry career with Liquid Packaging Solutions, Inc., in LaPorte, Indiana. To learn more about the Packaging Industry, visit the company's website at where you can learn about a variety of packaging machinery and even create your own packaging system.

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