June 28, 2019 / 2:04 PM / 3 months ago

Boxing with giants: Italy's packing robots are not just cardboard cutouts

(This June 28 story corrects Romaco’s nationality to German, not Italian, in paragraph 17)

A CartonWrap machine, which packs customer orders in tailor-made cardboard boxes is displayed at a factory of Italian packaging company CMC Srl in Citta di Castello, Italy, June 25, 2019. Picture taken June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

By Silvia Aloisi

CITTÀ DI CASTELLO, Italy (Reuters) - Amazon’s new recruit comes from a medieval walled town in central Italy and can box and seal at least 600 items of different shapes and sizes every hour. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

That recruit is the CartonWrap, brainchild of CMC, a small firm that is just one of 630 Italian companies making automated packaging machines - one of Italy’s fastest growing industries, raking in nearly 8 billion euros in 2018, or about a quarter of the world market.

Machinery is Italy’s top export, worth almost 50 billion euros ($57 billion) last year and a rare bright spot for a stagnant economy plagued by low productivity and high unemployment.

And leading the pack is - automated packaging - growing nine times faster than the economy as a whole, according to the trade association UCIMA.

“We doubled our turnover in the last three years and I think we will double it again in the next three years,” said CMC Chief Executive Francesco Ponti.

His father, Giuseppe, a technician with a local packaging company, founded CMC in 1980 in a domestic garage not far from the frescoed 16th century palazzi of Città di Castello.

It now employs 300 people and has revenues of 50 million euros - thanks mainly to CartonWrap, which measures goods coming down a conveyor belt through a scanner and wraps each in a custom-made box.

Both Amazon (AMZN.O) and Walmart (WMT.N) are customers, though Ponti said client relationships were confidential. Others include the Italian fashion group Gucci, the French retailer Leclerc and the Dutch online shop Bol.com.

FASTER AND CLEANER

At up to 1,000 boxes per hour, CartonWrap machines not only pack much faster than humans; they also save money by reducing packaging waste, CMC says.

“We were doing it manually but the problem was handling the volumes,” Tim Fronzek, co-founder of the German online retailer reBuy.com, which dispatches up to 25,000 items a day, told a CMC customer presentation.

“The machines have allowed us to manage the packaging process more efficiently, and process all outbound shipments in just a few hours with the help of two or three employees.”

The machines may not eat lunch but they do need breaks, for on-site technicians to fix problems and clean away the excess hot glue that can clog the machine.

Production capacity is also limited - CMC can only make five or six machines a month, though it plans to double that soon.

“Scale is a problem for our industry and consolidation is already under way,” said Maurizio Marchesini, chairman of Marchesini Group, which specializes in packaging for pharmaceutical products.

While Italian and German companies dominate the automated packaging market, Chinese competition is growing.

The robotics firm Kuka and the Romaco group, both German, have been bought by Chinese firms in the last three years - and across industrialized countries, humans will soon become redundant on many packaging lines.

Back at CMC, Francesco Ponti is relaxed.

“There are no more people who want to do this job by hand,” he said.

“If automation grows, the (number of) people who work in automation grow, and the quality of their work will be much better than it is today.”

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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