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IPM: Over-Delivery in the Name of Uptime

IPM’s emphasis on machine runnability and continued service is driven by its positioning statement that “uptime is the only time that matters.”

IPM’s headquarters in Rockford, Michigan.
IPM’s headquarters in Rockford, Michigan.

If one word could describe the team at Integrated Packaging Machinery (IPM), it would be “dedicated.”

The Michigan-based dairy, food, and beverage packaging systems integrator tackles every project with a specialized and customer-focused approach, where uptime is king, and every decision is made with practical runnability in mind.

This holistic approach to meeting its customers’ targets “may seem far too aspirational,” explains Tom Wiersma, business development manager at IPM. “But the truth is, there are ways to do what needs to be done. You have to talk it through and debate these problems with the customer, and so we do, in a thoughtful and professional way.”

IPM’s dedication to its customers’ needs stems from its employees’ own dedication to the company. Running under an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), every IPM employee is committed to the company’s success.

“The culture is such that nobody ever says anything along the lines of ‘that’s not my job,’” Wiersma says. “Our employees will find a way to get it done or find somebody who can get it done, because when the company succeeds, they succeed.”

How did it all begin?

The story of IPM begins in 1998, with two colleagues who worked together at a conveyor supplier—Brad Lamb, IPM’s president until his retirement two months ago, and Kendall Malstrom, who still works at IPM as vice president.

The duo decided they could excel at designing packaging systems and started the company with that goal in mind. Without the means to build their own machines, they decided to work with those who could.

“That’s been the model ever since. We’ll buy the best solution from outside, and integrate it into a single packaging ecosystem,” says Wiersma.The IPM team celebrates earning Michigan OSHA’s MSHARP certification in 2023. IPM is one of nine companies to currently hold the certification.The IPM team celebrates earning Michigan OSHA’s MSHARP certification in 2023. IPM is one of nine companies to currently hold the certification.IPM

An OEM-neutral approach to packaging line integration

Part of what makes IPM unique is its OEM-neutral approach to designing secondary packaging lines. When choosing machines for a project, it prioritizes optimal performance over any specific OEM product line.

When designing a highly customized line to fit both the dimensions and performance metrics required by its customers, “not every OEM can do it, and not everyone has a good price,” Wiersma explains. “We have to find the OEM that solves all the right problems, and no single company does that.”

The company instead approaches each project with a fresh perspective, informing its decisions with an “uptime audit” in the early planning stages. This includes an on-site meeting to gather all the available data about the customers’ current and desired production rates, packaging dimensions, and other necessary information.

“If it’s an existing system they want to modernize, we’ll assess that system and its uptime capabilities, asking ‘what do we need to do to make this work better?’” explains Wiersma. “When it’s a new project, we’ll spend time with our customers to figure out what they need, what their aspirations are for this plant, and we’ll help them unearth all that.”

This assessment and subsequent project phases are guided by IPM’s SURE-thing approach (Specified for Uptime + Runnability Engineered).

In the eyes of IPM, uptime is an essential consideration for the success of its customers, and it must be strategically achieved rather than being left to happenstance.

While in operation, “it’s okay if a line slows down, but then it has to be designed to auto-accumulate cartons, and speed up again when the time comes,” says Wiersma. “Runnability is key, and that’s also an engineered solution.”

With these principles in mind, IPM completes its design phase with an evaluation of several options to reach scope freeze or a solidification of the project’s requirements.

As the process continues, scope freeze may be malleable, “but the point of the first phases is to do all that we can to ensure that scope freeze doesn’t move,” Wiersma says.

Ensuring functionality through FAT protocols

Once IPM starts connecting machinery, it follows a rigorous factory acceptance test (FAT) protocol, closely adhering to PMMI-suggested standards, to ensure the various machinery operates as intended.

IPM can take two different routes for its FAT, depending on the project.

In more straightforward cases, the company can confidently go to an OEM site with the customer’s machine requirements in mind, observe the machine in action, and give it the stamp of approval.

For more complex projects, though, like a recent case Wiersma cited where three robots would be working together, IPM may need to take matters into its own hands.

“There’s no way we could have done that at three different OEM locations, so we had to bring the robots into our own plant, set it up, and make sure it is programmed accurately and works as intended,” Wiersma says. “It’s expensive, so we don’t want to do it if we don’t have to, but sometimes you have to. Our customers know that, and it’s baked into the price.”

IPM then puts the whole system together at the customer’s plant and runs a demanding site acceptance test (SAT).

“We’ve installed and commissioned it, programmed it, automated it, but we don’t leave until it’s operating precisely as the customer wanted,” Wiersma says.

Building machine components when duty calls

The AccuTURRET system improves EOAT efficiency while protecting the machine’s wiring.The AccuTURRET system improves EOAT efficiency while protecting the machine’s wiring.IPMAs a packaging systems integrator, IPM generally leaves the machine building to the OEMs. But with its “bias for over-delivering,” as Wiersma says, the company will design machine components when the situation necessitates.

One such example came with IPM’s development of its AccuTURRET end-of-arm-tool (EOAT) cable management system.

Customers had reported to IPM that the cables running into the EOAT were wearing down from repeated use, and eventually causing downtime.

IPM developed the cable management system to solve this problem, with an emphasis on difficult pallet building operations and space-limited applications. The system features 220° rotation to accelerate cycle functions, improve accuracy, and reduce stress on the energy, communications, and vacuum supply of the EOAT. 

“That goes back to the ESOP culture,” says Wiersma, noting that each employee is rewarded for developing innovative solutions to satisfy customers. “Although we don’t manufacture machinery as a rule, if we can’t find it, we’ll find a way.”

Training for the entire packaging system

Also unique to IPM is its approach toward training; the company’s focus on the entire packaging line as a cohesive system extends into its training philosophy.

With anywhere between six to 10 different machine centers or functions on a given packaging line, it’s easy to develop gaps in expertise by studying each machine as an individual unit.

Instead of an OEM technician coming to train employees on individual machines, “we work very closely with those OEMs, take their information, and design a curriculum for the entire packaging line,” Wiersma says.IPM trains its educators on-site at customer facilities.IPM trains its educators on-site at customer facilities.IPM

IPM’s staff includes four “adult educators” to gather this information and craft a comprehensive curriculum, says Wiersma. When the company installs a new line at a customer site, these educators will visit the plant and offer training across all shifts, sometimes staying for two days to cover all employees.

Further, the educators compile the information into an e-learning tool for future reference.

“After we leave, people need to be reminded or re-educated, or people leave and more come in. So, we convert that line curriculum into an e-learning tool that people can spend time on and learn from,” Wiersma says.

The combination of an entire-line focus and quick reference through the e-learning tool helps to preserve accumulated knowledge among customer staff. It ensures expertise on each machine’s connection to the next and maintains that knowledge even as technicians come and go. 

Future plans in digitalization

Looking forward, IPM is placing an emphasis on emerging digital technology in the name of continued customer support.

The company already employs 36 field technicians to install, optimize, and maintain the systems at its customers’ sites, but its development focus now includes technology to streamline and digitize maintenance.

Currently in development is digital twin capability, or a real-time, exact digital replica of a customer’s packaging line. Once operational, IPM will be able to troubleshoot issues for customers without requiring an on-site technician.

“We will be able to help customers via remote access, to troubleshoot issues or even augment our earlier training by having an instructor use that digital twin with new employees,” says Wiersma.

IPM is also in the process of implementing artificial intelligence (AI) for use in predictive maintenance.

Different machine components can wear or break down faster than others and through unique conditions than others, explains Wiersma. “If we can predict some of those issues with AI, we can do predictive maintenance more intelligently, more timely, more relevant, and less expensively.”

Additionally, IPM has already had some success in implementing AI for training.

“The cohort of five or six employees at a customer location will have their AI device on, and we can do training on-site, in the plants, using AI as a medium,” says Wiersma.

With IPM already committed to customer support and inventive packaging line integration strategies, its development of these digital technologies ensures uptime remains paramount as the technological landscape evolves.

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