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In food packing, you may not need a “better mousetrap”

In the never-ending quest to increase production and efficiency, and to reduce costs, companies are looking to automation as the solution. They’re being sold huge machines that do it all. For small and medium-sized companies, that’s overkill.

Patented in 1879, the mousetrap is an engineering masterpiece that has yet to be improved.

Sure, someone could invent a machine that automatically loads the bait, sets the trap, disposes of the unfortunate rodent, and starts the process over. Such a contraption would be about the size of a microwave and would require regular maintenance, a reliable power source, and someone who knows how to fix it when it breaks down. And, it would cost several hundred dollars.

Would most people need such a machine? Or is simplicity better?

This is the situation many food packaging companies find themselves in (yes, I understand the mouse analogy is not pleasant when we’re talking about food, but stay with me.)

In the never-ending quest to increase production and efficiency, and to reduce costs, companies are looking to automation as the solution. They’re being sold huge machine that do it all, completely removing human hands from the process in the name of speed and production.

For large producers, that’s fine. But for small and medium-sized companies, it’s overkill. Often, simpler, smaller machines are better. Here’s why:


Part of simplicity is using standard, off-the-shelf components. This is especially important with robotic controls. When everything – the machine, the robot, the conveyors – is run off the same, standard controller, the machine is less susceptible to problems. And problems are easier and less expensive to fix.


The simpler a system is, the easier it is to maintain. Less training, less time, less hassle. Troubleshooting is easier, and the machine is back on line faster.


When you buy a machine, you want it up and running. Fast. The more complex it is, the longer it will take to deliver, install, set up, and start working seamlessly in your line. Many machines can take days or weeks to get running properly, but a simple machine can be up and running in hours.


Many packers need to accommodate new products, short runs, or complete product changes. With large, complex machines, this is difficult, if not impossible in many cases. Simpler machines, that have a smaller footprint, can easily be reconfigured to accommodate changing needs. They can even be easily relocated, if necessary, and set up again in no time (see Setup).


Taking out complexity means taking out cost. Simple machines are quick and easy to build, ship and set up. They require less maintenance and are easy to fix. That means lower purchase cost, lower labor costs, and lower maintenance cost. It also means greater uptime and productivity.

In food packing, there are many “better mousetraps” available. But that level of automation and complexity comes at a price that is difficult for anyone but the largest manufacturers to recoup.

They would be better served finding simpler solutions that, while they may not do everything, are a better fit for their needs and budget.

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