A system that doubles the speed of corrugated box-making is proving to be invaluable for companies preparing for volatility.
The world runs on corrugated boxes. Transporting just about anything, from food to machine parts, requires the ubiquitous brown packages, placing them squarely at the center of the global supply chain. Unsurprisingly, events in recent years have upended the corrugated box market. (Corrugated refers to the durable, multi-layered board sheets used for packages.) A confluence of factors – the rise of e-commerce, the COVID-19 pandemic, related COVID government relief, sustainability initiatives and more – have contributed to a spike in demand that sent box material prices soaring (up some 32% in June) and maxed out producers’ capacities. Short Run Box Machine
“Some of our customers grew 25% the last couple of years,” says Christine Little, Senior Sales Manager with the Corrugating Machinery Division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). “Now they’re trying to figure out, ‘Is this the new norm?’”
Box producers need the flexibility to adapt to a wide variety of potential scenarios, a tall order for a traditionally slow-growth industry that measures investment cycles in decades. But an elegant solution called 2-Up Production is helping by doubling the effective speed for box-making machines such as MHI’s EVOL Flexo Folder Gluers.
The idea isn’t entirely new: MHI, whose machines make tens of millions of boxes worldwide each year, first developed 2-Up Production with a customer in 2015. But it’s becoming increasingly popular as the breakthrough is being recycled – much like the box material itself – and put to more-valuable uses as box manufacturers look to make their operations more scalable, flexible and efficient.
Like other sectors today, the $36 billion-a-year market for corrugated boxes faces a complex set of powerful crosscurrents. Forces that could drive or sap growth include:
Box makers need the flexibility to navigate these swirling waters. That’s where 2-Up Production can help.
Back in the mid-2010s, a customer approached MHI Corrugating Machinery with an ambitious idea: Could a box-making machine be engineered to produce two smaller boxes in the time it took to make one larger box?
“One of our customers helped us develop the concept,” Little recalls. “They had an idea and worked collaboratively with our engineering department on it.”
Doubling a machine’s productivity may sound daunting, but the concept is relatively straightforward. Consider how a manufacturer produces a run of boxes using one of MHI’s EVOL machines:
2-Up Production is a system that uses the same basic process, but instead of making one box out of each board sheet, it makes two conjoined boxes, then separates them with a slitter. This novel solution allows the machine to double production to as many as 800 boxes per minute, or more than 13 per second.
2-Up Production on an EVOL machine, from a sheet of corrugated board to two boxes.
The idea behind 2-Up Production was simple, but making it work was another matter. To cut slots for two boxes on one sheet, MHI developed the Dual Slotter, a minor miracle of engineering. It uses four knives and improved sensor technology to cut slots with an accuracy of less than half a millimeter, at speeds too fast to see clearly with the naked eye.
All that high-speed cutting introduced another problem: scraps of corrugated board that threatened to stick to boxes’ glued portions. MHI further fine-tuned its machines, introducing air blowers and scrap guides to keep the scraps from gumming up the process.
The company shipped its first Dual Slotter-equipped EVOL machine in July 2015. Since then, it’s adapted the technology for use with other EVOL models.
Mitsubishi's EVOL box-making machine in action.
In 2020 and 2021, the vast majority of EVOL machines sold included Dual Slotter technology. A box manufacturer using 2-Up Production now has far greater flexibility to match its output to the market: scaling up during spikes in demand, making smaller boxes faster and potentially doubling the productivity of its workforce.
Corrugated Box Therein lies a valuable lesson for those focused on thinking outside the box. Sometimes, you need an entirely new breakthrough. Other times, the wisest strategy is applying an existing breakthrough to a new set of problems.