Striving to contribute to the realization of a sustainable society through the development of temperature controllers.
Marine plastic waste is a universal problem. About half of plastics that enter oceans are packaging materials such as containers and wrapping. In a bid to reduce the environmental impact, manufacturers from around the world are desperately seeking ways to switch their plastic packaging materials to eco-friendly alternatives.
The tricky part is that finer temperature control is required when applying heat to seal packages made with new materials. Often the temperature gets too high when using conventional techniques, creating holes in the packaging and a high percentage of defects.
Determined to solve the social issue of marine plastic waste, OMRON embarked on the challenging task of developing innovative temperature controllers that would significantly reduce packaging defects.
Mission: reducing plastic packaging materials
Plastic waste in oceans has a multitude of harmful effects on the marine environment, including its ecosystem. It not only harms and destroys marine organisms but also pollutes the seas and eventually threatens human health and lives.
In the industrial sector, many companies are trying to switch from plastic materials to paper materials, thinner plastics, or biodegradable plastics (ones that dissolve in the natural environment) for their containers and packaging materials.
Yet the switch to eco-friendly packaging materials is not as easy as it may seem. This is because of the difference in thermal reactivity between new packaging materials and conventional plastic ones.
Usually, when packaging products, heat is applied to seal packages. The problem here is that paper packaging materials do not conduct heat well, and thin-walled plastics and biodegradable plastics have a low thermal tolerance and do not glue well, or shrink when heat is applied, causing wrinkling, or get scorched or melt, resulting in unacceptable amounts of defective packages. This has deterred many companies from changing their packaging materials.
This paradoxical impasse came to the attention of OMRON’s Miho Nishide, who develops temperature controllers in the product planning team of the components division of the company. The company has a history of more than 50 years of developing and manufacturing temperature controllers for a wide array of industries and is among the largest players in the global market.
Out of the sincere wish to address the social issues caused by marine plastic waste by leveraging OMRON’s technology to expedite the introduction of eco-friendly packaging materials, Nishide launched her attempt to develop new temperature controllers.
Developing a temperature controller that eliminates packaging defects
With common automatic packaging machines, once the package is filled with a product, it is sealed at the mouth by metal bars heated to a high temperature (sealing bars). What is important here is to keep a constant temperature on the surface of the sealing bars. If the temperature is even marginally lower or higher, the packaging will have defects.
“Our goal was to reduce the temperature fluctuation on the sealing surfaces during the packaging process to one-tenth of that of conventional machines,” recalls Nishide.
Soon she would realise that it was an unexpectedly daunting challenge even with OMRON’s 50-plus years of experience and cutting-edge temperature control technology.
How can a packaging defect occur when the temperature is constant? At first, members of her team didn’t even understand its mechanism.
“Can we really solve this with OMRON’s technology? Given the sheer variety of materials, thickness, and the number of layers, there would be tens of thousands of types of packaging materials, and it’s simply impossible to support all of them…”, says Nishide.
The research team’s unease grew more pronounced by the day. Yet, they didn’t back down and chose to keep going. What provided this forward drive?
“We didn’t start this project because we wanted to enhance the performance or specs of temperature controllers. Rather, we had an overriding goal of solving the social issue caused by marine plastic waste as a way to contribute to the global community,” says Nishide.
“We knew that no one else could offer solutions to this universal issue, and that helped us to overcome the many emotional conflicts that we encountered.”
“Before we knew it, we had a circle of supporters from other departments. Not only that, but also customers who had purchased temperature controllers for packaging machines from us were generous enough to educate us on the mechanism of packaging machines and tell us under what conditions sealing defects occurred on their lines. Those altruistic customers numbered as many as 82.”
To reach a solution, the members read a total of 1 437 pages of academic papers and other reference literature. Because they felt they lacked knowledge of packaging machines, they also installed a flow wrapper machine within the development area to create a complete packaging line. Here, to build technological knowledge, they conducted sealing experiments over and over using packaging materials more than 10km long.
A technology that precisely controls temperature and reduces temperature fluctuation to one-tenth
Finally, they pinned down the cause of sealing defects: When sealing bars hold packaging materials, heat on the sealing surfaces is lost, lowering the temperature. To solve this problem, it was necessary to accurately measure the temperature on the surfaces of the sealing bars.
Because conventional temperature sensors for packaging machines are positioned away from the sealing surfaces due to their heat resistance and other properties, it was not an easy task to accurately measure the temperature on the sealing surfaces.
Nishide and her team members went back to the drawing board to take a fresh look at the sensor’s materials and structure. They increased the sensor’s heat resistance, as well as its responsiveness so that it could follow the fast-moving sealing bars, successfully measuring the temperature on the sealing surfaces.
But accurately measuring temperature alone was not enough. They also needed to keep the temperature constant. So they improved the temperature control algorithm and introduced AI technology, making it possible to precisely control temperature by having parameters automatically adjusted in response to temperature fluctuations.
What resulted was a technology for real-time temperature sensing on the fast-moving sealing surfaces, and another for automatic parameter adjustments to precisely control temperature.
By honing these, they made an innovative application that reduces temperature change on the sealing surfaces to one-tenth, regardless of the types of packaging materials. In 2018, they launched AI-embedded temperature controllers that feature a App, which is now known as the Perfect Sealing solution.
The perfect sealing solution
OMRON’s Perfect Sealing Solution was met with great surprise and acclaim by customers.
“A globally leading company that had never used OMRON products before decided to use our solution and happily reported that they were able to reduce temperature fluctuation during the sealing process to 0.7ºC where it was previously over 8ºC at the highest,” claims Nishide.
Such was the response from the market, OMRON became eager to pitch the Perfect Sealing Solution to more customers, eventually replacing plastic packaging materials with eco-friendly ones across the world.
This led the team to assemble a portable, high-performance prototype packaging machine one-twentieth the size of the real one for demonstrations.
Other members of the OMRON Group take it to prospective customers in Europe, Southeast Asia, the US, and elsewhere to show them how it works and let them know about the value it can create for them.
If the number of packaging machines equivalent to the total unit sales of OMRON’s temperature controllers with the Perfect Sealing Solution switched their packaging materials from conventional plastics to eco-friendly ones, we would have contributed to the reduction of approximately one million tons of plastic waste (18.58 million kilometres of plastic packaging).
OMRON is not resting on its laurels and has embarked on a new project. This time, the company is planning to increase the variety of packaging materials’ forms that the temperature controllers can handle to expand beyond flow wrapping. Also planned is a roll-out of this technology to plastic bottles, stick packages, and other packages whose production process differs completely from bag packages.
“Temperature controllers and the marine plastic waste problem. At a glance, you may think they have nothing to do with each other, but if you think carefully, there are many social issues that we should address,” Nishide concludes. “We will continue working hard to solve social issues to be challenged in various industrial fields as we make the most of our technological prowess.”
As a leader in industrial automation, OMRON has extensive lines of control components and equipment, ranging from vision sensors and other input devices to various controllers and output devices such as servomotors, as well as a range of safety devices and industrial robots.
By combining these devices via software, OMRON has developed a variety of unique and highly effective automation solutions for manufacturers worldwide. Based on its reservoir of advanced technologies and comprehensive range of devices, OMRON set forth a strategic concept called “innovative Automation” consisting of three innovations or “i’s”: “integrated” (control evolution), “intelligent” (development of intelligence by ICT), and “interactive” (new harmonization between people and machines). OMRON is now committed to bringing innovation to manufacturing sites by materializing this concept.