Packaging machinery technicians work with automated machinery that packages products into bottles, cans, bags, boxes, cartons, and other containers. The machines perform various operations, such as forming, filling, closing, labeling, and marking. The systems and technologies that packaging machinery technicians work with are diverse. Depending on the job, packaging machinery technicians may work with electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, or pneumatic systems. They also may work with computerized controllers, fiber-optic transmitters, robotic units, and vision systems.
Packaging Machinery Technician Career History
Packaging has been used since ancient times, when people first wrapped food in materials to protect it or devised special carriers to transport items over long distances. One of the oldest packaging materials, glass, was used by Egyptians as early as 3000 b.c. Packaging as we know it, though, has its origins in the industrial revolution. Machinery was used for mass production of items, and manufacturers needed some way to package products and protect them during transport. Packages and containers were developed that not only kept goods from damage during shipment, but also helped to increase the shelf life of perishable items.
Initially, packaging was done by hand. Workers at manufacturing plants hand-packed products into paper boxes, steel cans, glass jars, or other containers as they were produced. As manufacturing processes and methods improved, equipment and machines were developed to provide quicker and less expensive ways to package products. Automated machinery was in use by the 19th century and was used not only to package products but also to create packaging materials. The first containers produced through automated machinery were glass containers created by Michael Owens in Toledo, Ohio, in 1903.
The use of new packaging materials, such as cellophane in the 1920s and aluminum cans in the early 1960s, required updated machinery to handle the new materials and to provide faster, more efficient production. Semiautomatic machines and eventually high-speed, fully automated machines were created to handle a wide variety of products, materials, and packaging operations. Today, packaging engineers, packaging machinery technicians, and other engineering professionals work to develop new equipment and techniques that are more time-, material-, and cost-efficient. Advanced technologies, such as robotics, are allowing for the creation of increasingly sophisticated packaging machinery.
Packaging Machinery Technician Job Description
Packaging machinery technicians work in packaging plants of various industries or in the plants of packaging machinery manufacturers. Their jobs entail building machines, installing and setting up equipment, training operators to use the equipment, maintaining equipment, troubleshooting, and repairing machines. Many of the machines today are computer-controlled and may include robotic or vision-guided applications.
Machinery builders, also called assemblers, assist engineers in the development and modification of new and existing machinery designs. They build different types of packaging machinery by following engineering blueprints, wiring schematics, pneumatic diagrams, and plant layouts. Beginning with a machine frame that has been welded in another department, they assemble electrical circuitry, mechanical components, and fabricated items that they may have made themselves in the plant’s machine shop. They may also be responsible for bolting on additional elements of the machine to the frame. After the machinery is assembled, they perform a test run to make sure it is performing according to specifications.
Field service technicians, also called field service representatives, are employed by packaging machinery manufacturers. They do most of their work at the plants where the packaging machinery is being used. In some companies, assemblers may serve as field service technicians; in others, the field service representative is a technician other than the assembler. In either case, they install new machinery at customers’ plants and train in-plant machine operators and maintenance personnel on its operation and maintenance.
When a new machine is delivered, the field service technicians level it and anchor it to the plant floor. Then, following engineering drawings, wiring plans, and plant layouts, they install the system’s electrical and electromechanical components. They also regulate the controls and setup for the size, thickness, and type of material to be processed and ensure the correct sequence of processing stages. After installation, the technicians test-run the machinery and make any necessary adjustments. Then they teach machine operators the proper operating and maintenance procedures for that piece of equipment. The entire installation process, which may take a week, is carefully documented. Field service representatives may also help the plant’s in-house mechanics troubleshoot equipment already in operation, including modifying equipment for greater efficiency and safety.
Automated packaging machine mechanics, also called maintenance technicians, perform scheduled preventive maintenance as well as diagnose machinery problems and make repairs. Preventive maintenance is done on a regular basis following the manufacturer’s guidelines in the service manual. During routine maintenance, technicians change filters in vacuum pumps, grease fittings, change oil in gearboxes, and replace worn bushings, chains, and belts. When machines do break down, maintenance technicians must work quickly to fix them so that production can resume as soon as possible. The technician might be responsible for all the machinery in the plant, one or more packaging lines, or a single machine. In a small plant, a single technician may be responsible for all the duties required to keep a packaging line running, while in a large plant a team of technicians may divide the duties.
Packaging Machinery Technician Career Requirements
Although a high school diploma is not required, it is preferred by most employers who hire packaging or engineering technicians. In high school, you should take geometry and vo-tech classes such as electrical shop, machine shop, and mechanical drawing. Computer classes, including computer-aided design, are also helpful. In addition to developing mechanical and electrical abilities, you should develop communication skills through English and writing classes.
Many employers prefer to hire technicians who have completed a two-year technical training program. Completing a machinery training program or packaging machinery program can provide you with the necessary knowledge and technical skills for this type of work. Machinery training programs are available at community colleges, trade schools, and technical institutes throughout the country, but there are only a few technical colleges specializing in packaging machinery programs. These programs award either a degree or certificate in automated packaging machinery systems.
Packaging machinery programs generally last two years and include extensive hands-on training as well as classroom study. You will learn to use simple hand tools, such as hacksaws, drill presses, lathes, mills, and grinders. Other technical courses cover sheet metal and welding work, power transmission, electrical and mechanical systems, maintenance operations, industrial safety, and hazardous materials handling.
Classes in packaging operations include bag making, loading, and closing; case loading; blister packaging; palletizing, conveying, and accumulating; and labeling and bar coding. There are also classes in form fill, seal wrap, and carton machines as well as packaging quality control and package design and testing. Courses especially critical in an industry where technology is increasingly sophisticated are PLC (programmable logic control), CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing), fiber optics, robotics, and servo controls.
Certification or Licensing
Although employers may not require certification, it can provide a competitive advantage when seeking employment. A voluntary certification program is available for engineering technicians through the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET). Certification is available at various levels and in different specialty fields. Most programs require passing a written exam and possessing a certain amount of work experience. The Institute of Packaging Professionals offers the following voluntary certifications: certified professional in training (professionals with less than six years of experience in packaging) and certified packaging professional (professionals with at least six years of experience in packaging).
Union membership may be a requirement for some jobs, depending on union activity at a particular company. Unions are more likely found in large-scale national and international corporations. Field service technicians are usually not unionized. Maintenance technicians and assemblers may be organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters or the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. In addition, some technicians may be represented by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.
If you are interested in this field, you should have mechanical and electrical aptitudes, manual dexterity, and the ability to work under deadline pressure. In addition, you should have analytical and problem-solving skills. The ability to communicate effectively with people from varying backgrounds is especially important as packaging machinery technicians work closely with engineers, plant managers, customers, and machinery operators. You need to be able to listen to workers’ problems as well as to explain things clearly. Packaging machinery technicians frequently have to provide written reports, so good writing skills are beneficial.
Exploring Packaging Machinery Technician Career
You can test your interest in this type of work by engaging in activities that require mechanical and electrical skills, such as building a short-wave radio, taking appliances apart, and working on cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. Participating in science clubs and contests can also provide opportunities for working with electrical and mechanical equipment and building and repairing things. Taking vocational shop classes can also help you explore your interests and acquire useful skills.
Consider visiting a plant or manufacturing company to observe packaging operations and see packaging machinery technicians at work. Many plants provide school tours, and you may be able to arrange a visit through a school counselor or teacher. Reading trade publications can also familiarize you with the industry.
Packaging machinery technicians are usually employed by companies that manufacture packaging machinery or by companies that package the products they produce. Packaging is one of the largest industries in the United States so jobs are plentiful across the country, in small towns and large cities. Opportunities in the packaging field can be found in almost any company that produces and packages a product. Food, chemicals, cosmetics, electronics, pharmaceuticals, automotive parts, hardware, plastics, and almost any products one can think of need to be packaged before reaching the consumer market. Because of this diversity, jobs are not restricted to any product, geographic location, or plant size.
If you are enrolled in a technical program you may find job leads through your schools’ office of career services. Many jobs in packaging are unadvertised—you can only find out about them through contacts with professionals in the industry. You can also learn about openings from teachers, school administrators, and industry contacts acquired during training.
You can apply directly to machinery manufacturing companies or companies with manufacturing departments. Local employment offices may list job openings. Sometimes companies hire part-time or summer help in other departments, such as the warehouse or shipping. These jobs may provide an opportunity to move into other areas of the company.
Technicians usually begin in entry-level positions and work as part of an engineering team. They may advance from a maintenance technician to an assembler, and then move up to a supervisory position in production operations or packaging machinery. They can also become project managers and field service managers.
Workers who show an interest in their work, who learn quickly, and have good technical skills can gradually take on more responsibilities and advance to higher positions. The ability to work as part of a team and communicate well with others, plus self-motivation and the ability to work well without a lot of supervision, are all helpful traits for advancement. People who have skills as a packaging machinery technician can usually transfer those skills to engineering technician positions in other industries.
Some packaging machinery technicians pursue additional education to qualify as an engineer and move into packaging engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or industrial engineering positions. Other technicians pursue business, economics, and finance degrees and use these credentials to obtain positions in other areas of the manufacturing process, in business development, or in areas such as importing or exporting.
Earnings vary with geographical area and the employee’s skill level and specific duties and job responsibilities. Other variables that may affect salary include the size of the company and the type of industry, such as the food and beverage industry or the electronics industry. Technicians who work at companies with unions generally, but not always, earn higher salaries.
In general, technicians earn approximately $20,000 a year to start and with experience can increase their salaries to approximately $33,000. Seasoned workers with two-year degrees who work for large companies may earn between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, particularly those in field service jobs or in supervisory positions.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that packaging and filling machine operators and tenders earned an annual median salary of $22,930 in 2005, with salaries ranging from $15,170 to $37,420 or more. A survey by Salary.com found the median annual earnings for packaging and filling machine operators and tenders in 2006 were $25,224 with most earning between $21,787 and $31,643.
Packaging machinery technicians who are certified by the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IOPP) earn higher salaries than technicians who are not certified. According to a IoPP survey, certified packaging professionals earned between 7 percent and 10 percent more than non-certified workers.
Benefits vary and depend upon company policy but generally include paid holidays, vacations, sick days, and medical and dental insurance. Some companies also offer tuition assistance programs, pension plans, profit sharing, and 401(k) plans.
Packaging machinery technicians work in a variety of environments. They may work for a machinery manufacturer or in the manufacturing department of a plant or factory. Most plants are clean and well ventilated, although actual conditions vary based on the type of product manufactured and packaged. Certain types of industries and manufacturing methods can pose special problems. For example, plants involved in paperboard and paper manufacturing may have dust created from paper fibers. Workers in food plants may be exposed to strong smells from the food being processed, although most workers usually get accustomed to this. Pharmaceutical and electronic component manufacturers may require special conditions to ensure that the manufacturing environments are free from dirt, contamination, and static. Clean-air environments may be special rooms that are temperature- and moisture-controlled, and technicians may be required to wear special clothing or equipment when working in these rooms.
In general, most plants have no unusual hazards, although safety practices need to be followed when working on machinery and using tools. The work is generally not strenuous, although it does involve carrying small components and hand tools, and some bending and stretching.
Most workers work 40 hours a week, although overtime may be required, especially during the installation of new machinery or when equipment malfunctions. Some technicians may be called in during the evening or on weekends to repair machinery that has shut down production operations. Installation and testing periods of new equipment can also be very time-intensive and stressful when problems develop. Troubleshooting, diagnosing problems, and repairing equipment may involve considerable time as well as trial-and-error testing until the correct solution is determined.
Technicians who work for machinery manufacturers may be required to travel to customers’ plants to install new machinery or to service or maintain existing equipment. This may require overnight stays or travel to foreign locations.
Packaging Machinery Technician Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor reports little change or slower than the average employment growth through 2014 for packaging and filling machine operators and tenders. However, with the growth of the packaging industry, which grosses more than $100 billion a year, a nationwide shortage of trained packaging technicians has developed over the last 20 years. There are far more openings than there are qualified applicants.
The packaging machinery industry is expected to continue its growth in the 21st century. American-made packaging machinery has earned a worldwide reputation for high quality and is known for its outstanding control systems and electronics. Continued success in global competition will remain important to the packaging machinery industry’s prosperity and employment outlook.
The introduction of computers, robotics, fiber optics, and vision systems into the industry has added new skill requirements and job opportunities for packaging machinery technicians. There is already widespread application of CAD/CAM technology. The use of computers in packaging machinery will continue to increase, with computers communicating with other computers on the status of operations and providing diagnostic maintenance information and production statistics. The role of robotics, fiber optics, and electronics will also continue to expand. To be prepared for the jobs of the future, packaging machinery students should seek training in the newest technologies.
With packaging one of the largest industries in the United States, jobs can be found across the country, in small towns and large cities, in small companies or multiplant international corporations. The jobs are not restricted to any one industry or geographical location— wherever there is industry, there is some kind of packaging going on.