The benefits of a proactive approach to automation

Coca-Cola European Partners’ Sidcup site has already achieved many of the archetypal automation ‘quick wins’, so what’s next for the rapidly expanding facility?

Sidcup has a fill-rate of 5,000 bottles and cans every minute – that’s over 80 every second – image courtesy of CCEP.
Sidcup has a fill-rate of 5,000 bottles and cans every minute – that’s over 80 every second – image courtesy of CCEP.

The seven manufacturing lines at Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) Sidcup produce more than 42 million cases of drinks every year.

With a fill-rate of 5,000 bottles and cans every minute – over 80 every second, it’s no wonder the business has a pro-active approach to investing in new automation.

The modular syrup batching room is highly automated, and is considered the heart of the entire operation. A sophisticated SCADA system oversees the more than 36 flavour variations being mixed, filled and subsequently drained from the room’s six storage tanks.

A 140-strong valve matrix ensures that at any given time, two tanks are filling, two are draining and two are undergoing cleaning.

Sidcup has six high-speed, low-energy plastic bottle blowers, with an automated camera system visually inspecting every bottle they produce. Similarly, an automated system handles the pallet loads of aluminium cans arriving from either Carlisle and Leicester, discarding the intermediate card layers and placing the cans on the inspection line prior to filling.

Once filled, sealed and packaged, a robotic palletizer manoeuvres and stacks the cases ready for dispatch. A key theme running through all these operations is the automation of manual handling, allowing human operators to be upskilled and trained to perform more advanced, maintenance and technician roles.

With many of the automation ‘low-hanging fruit’ already picked, The Manufacturer recently sat down with Trevor Stacey, supply chain operations director at CCEP Sidcup, to learn what the future holds.

“There are a few areas where we are still much more reliant on manual intervention than most, mainly to do with handling packaging and loading or dissembling packing coming in to make it useable on the lines. These processes could be automated, but you need to offset any cost with the potential payback period. For specific tasks, people can be more reliable than machines, so long as they’ve been trained and are motivated to perform.

“We have some evidence of automating quality control with various line cameras, though we are still quite reliant on taking a sample of containers off the line and conducting manual quality checks. That could represent the next evolution.”

Trevor Stacey, supply chain operations director at Coca-Cola European Partners Sidcup.
Trevor Stacey, supply chain operations director at Coca-Cola European Partners Sidcup.

Industry reports, conference presentations and trade publications are awash with talk of cyberphysical systems and the ‘smart’ capabilities of intelligent machines.

However, Stacey doesn’t see these advancements are being applicable to Sidcup’s operation – for the time being, at least.

He explained: “I still think it’s important that a human input or oversight is maintained. We’ve got massive amounts of automated technology and systems, but in the end, it’s the people who maintain them, who think and understand how they work.

“They are the ones who know how to drive it forward and importantly, cope with it when it goes wrong – either by fixing it or understanding why it broke down and what needs to be done to avoid future downtime.

“If you start moving too far away from that and put everything in a black control box, you start to disengage people and lose part of your control.”