Thinking outside the box: A 4IR case study

Mike Rigby, head of Manufacturing, Transport and Logistics at Barclays, shares how one of the world’s largest packaging producers is embracing, and importantly benefiting, from 4IR technologies.

DS Smith's facility in Blunham, Bedfordshire.
DS Smith has grown to become a leading provider of innovative packaging solutions, present in 37 countries and employing 27,000 people – image courtesy of DS Smith.

DS Smith can trace its history back to a box-making business started in the 1940s by the Smith family in East London, and has grown to become a leading provider of innovative packaging solutions, present in 37 countries and employing around 27,000 people.

To support its corrugated packaging operations, the company operates a recycling business that collects used paper and corrugated cardboard, from which its paper manufacturing facilities produce the recycled paper used in its products. It also designs and manufactures certain types of plastic packaging.

From the very beginning, DS Smith has placed innovation, sustainability, quality and service at the very heart of its operations, helping it to meet market demand for ever-greater cost efficiencies, waste reductions and simplified supply chains.

DS Smith has also leveraged its pro-active approach to investing in and adopting new technology, processes and capabilities to effectively compete in a highly competitive sector.

I recently caught up with Chiara Covone – director of innovation at DS Smith’s packaging division– to learn more.

There is a huge focus around Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technology and the additional capabilities they offer. What technologies have proved beneficial to realising DS Smith’s growth ambitions?

Chiara Covone: The power of robots is that they can perform repetitive actions consistently and endlessly. Humans simply can’t perform the same action, particularly if its labour intensive, for extended periods of time and achieve the same end result.

For the most part, robots have been successfully embedded within our automotive customer-focused sites and our employees who previously would have had to perform these repetitive, tiring manufacturing processes have been upskilled to supervise the robots in operation. We have already run numerous trials and production tests, so we are very confident the robots will continue to work well here and in other areas.

Our organisation is achieving such widespread growth that rather than taking someone’s job, the robots are actually helping us to fill gaps in recruitment and maintain our very high level of delivery. Robots are very welcome; the proposition is add-on rather than subtract.

Further thought-leadership courtesy of Mike Rigby:

Is the Levy resulting in a sinking (apprentice)ship? – twelve months on from the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy and unfortunately, the figures don’t make for a positive reading experience.

Q1 2018: Is UK manufacturing on a stable footing or slippery slope? – the past three months have seen manufacturing businesses continue to face national and international challenges, yet there are some very clear signs for a positive future.

UK has the drive to succeed as an industrial nation, whatever the future may bring – an overview of some of the key findings from the Annual Manufacturing Report 2018 and what they reveal about the nation’s manufacturing businesses.

UK manufacturers must seize the opportunities of 4IR – 87% of UK manufacturing businesses express confidence for the future; but, why isn’t that confidence translating into greater capital investment?

What role is the UK playing in Connected & Autonomous Vehicles? – lifting the lid on how the UK is driving the future of mobility.

DS Smith has a global reputation for providing innovative solutions that look at the whole of your partners’ packaging needs, not just one part. How has virtual, augmented and mixed reality helped you take that to the next level?

Virtual and mixed reality play a crucial role in helping our designers and engineers better collaborate with our partners to develop solutions together. We have been trialling these technologies for around 18 months and currently they are used when the dimensions of the product mean it’s challenging to have it physical on site.

It’s a lot easier to have a box of coffee in front of you, for example, than an automotive engine. The engine is heavy, bulky, expensive and more complex to work with in terms of designing packaging.

We are also employing sophisticated 3D scanners which enable us to create highly detailed, accurate digital models. Again, it enables our teams to more easily design and manufacture customised packaging and prototypes in our labs without the need to have the physical product or tools.

4IR Iot industry 4.0 concept,industrial engineer using smart glasses with augmented mixed with virtual reality technology to monitoring machine in real time.Smart factory use Automation robot arm– image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality is increasingly being deployed to help designers and engineers better collaborate with partners – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Augmented reality is something that our sales teams and designers are increasingly using via tablets or smart devices to quick prototype an idea and show the customer. It helps bring our designs to life and adds a level of tangibility.

It allows a customer to really experience how their product looks in the packaging and how that packaging would fit within their existing procedures and supply chain.

I’m sure one of the important technological shifts for DS Smith has been the move to digital printing.

Absolutely. Our digital printers provide greater capability, higher flexibility and quality. They also offer the ability to change and adapt each individual box; we can now truly create the ‘box of one’.

Another significant advantage is around connectivity. Digital printers allow us to put invisible unique water marks on our packaging which communicate constantly with our system to provide superior visibility and traceability across both our own and our customers’ end-to-end supply chain. It’s one of the areas that I am responsible for and I believe it will be hugely beneficial in not only combating counterfeit and stolen goods, but also to overcome current supply chain inefficiencies.

Another advantage is that these water marks can connect to smart device and offer explanations or instructions digitally. That’s a huge step forward from having to print, include and ship traditional paper-based manuals. Leveraging modern media to deliver video-based instructions represents an opportunity to further augment our offer and intensify our market potential, particularly in the industrial space.

It’s interesting you mention the advantages of connectivity because almost every company – regardless of size or sector – is exploring how to unlock and exploit the true value of data.

That’s an area that is definitely very high on our agenda in term of ensuring we fully leverage all the information we capture and use it to generate meaningful, actionable data-driven insights. We have to really know and understand exactly what it is that we are gathering and bringing that value back to our customers through more informed, innovative solutions – to better design for the future based on past experience.

Another exciting project we are working on is in collaboration with a company which place a SIM card in every box. These continually send real-time updates to a centralised system in terms of humidity and temperature, shock, excess movement, light penetration (to indicate whether a box has been opened or not), and of course location.

Blockchain really opens a supply chain up, allowing data to flow freely and easily - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Blockchain really opens a supply chain up, allowing data to flow freely and easily – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Knowing this information allows us to offer the market full traceability – in every sense of the word, which is highly desirable when shipping expensive or valuable objects. It’s also incredibly useful to identify weak points in a supply chain and help us to better understand what can be done to overcome them.

Blockchain is another area we are currently exploring with external partners. Today, if I need to track a package across an entire supply chain, I would have to interact with all the different systems ran by the various parties. These systems don’t always communicate well with each other and may even require me to own different pieces of hardware and software.

Blockchain changes that by really opening a supply chain up and allowing data to flow. We can all learn from data, but there is a real cultural constraint or inability within companies regarding the sharing of information. That’s the key challenge we all must overcome.

It sounds like DS Smith is quite advanced in terms of its adoption of 4IR technologies.

We have certainly made some good progress, and we are in quite advanced dialogue with our customers to co-create proof-of-concepts innovations which we can learn from and scale-up. Yet, at the same time, we are still very much taking our first steps.

The combination of these technologies benefits our customers in terms of having unique, market leading, modern, differentiated products; it also means DS Smith has a much more agile, responsive and flexible organisation, which can be challenging to achieve when you get to our size.

We strive to always be a better partner to our customers, which means we need to be very proactive in our solutions and bring or co-create with them new, innovative, value-add packaging solutions. We can’t afford to be purely reactive, we need to work with customers, identify their pain points and find out exactly what capability it is they require. That is far more achievable now thanks to the advances of technology, particularly digital technology.

We have been exploring, investigating, investing in and integrating all the technologies I’ve mentioned for the past 18 months – if not longer – and I think the next 18 months are going to be very exciting.


You might be interested in Barclays’ latest piece of research – Intelligent manufacturing: An industrial revolution for the digital age, which you can find here.