Makers of equipment designed for supporting primary processing are also helping processors make good sustainable and financial decisions for their business.
It should come as no surprise that the first word from auxiliaries suppliers—size reduction equipment manufacturers in particular—is “recycle.” The second, of course, is energy conservation. And the third? Mother Earth gets another nod, this time for biomaterials. Leaders in these five companies are pursuing technology they say will help you pull your operations up the slow economic recovery, and here they share their thoughts on what they expect in 2011.
Q: What event or condition is having the biggest effect on your sector of the plastics industry in 2010, and which one do you think will be the most important in 2011?
Keller: There are three things that I think are and will be affecting the plastics industry in the near and longer term. First and foremost is the economy. Things are better this year (2010) than last, but I don’t think anyone really knows quite what to expect for 2011. Secondly, there is the political and regulatory uncertainty related to healthcare and labor, both of which seem ready to whack the industry before the end of 2010 and almost certainly in 2011. And third, the tight credit environment continues to limit purchasing power of potential customers. Looking out to 2011, no doubt a lot hinges on sustained economic recovery. However, the outcomes of the various political and regulatory battles brewing currently are likely to have the biggest impact on the business climate next year and for years to come.
Smith: For 2010, euro instability. The strengthening dollar is hurting exports. European processors are pulling in their horns, preparing for sustained stagnant markets. Credit in North America is still very tight, restricting capital equipment investment. China is raising interest rates; that is having an immediate effect and will delay orders. Brazil is booming.
For 2011, again euro stability—but how far will it fall? European manufacturers have the opportunity to take share in Asia as the low-cost producers. Domestic automotive recovery will provide the volume needed to fill excess capacity.
Winstead: The increase in overall capacity utilization is having the greatest effect on our segment of the plastics industry for 2010. For much of the past year there was an excess of idle equipment in plants, and many businesses used that machinery for changes in applications or to cannibalize for parts, thereby reducing the need for new machinery. Additionally, the lower levels of utilization on the industrial side meant that there was significantly less material being diverted to outside postindustrial recyclers, thereby putting pressure on their ability to keep their existing machinery busy and ultimately to satisfy their customers’ demand for recycled material.
Looking forward to 2011, one would expect the sustainability movement to significantly increase the amount of materials being diverted to both the postindustrial and postconsumer recyclers, and therefore ultimately drive an increased need for all size reduction equipment.
Goldfarb: The biggest sector condition is the advent and prevalence of energy-conscious customers. A great many projects involve lowering operating costs with energy-efficient designs for new and existing (retrofit) equipment, particularly in the higher-throughput machines. There has also been significant interest in bioresins (PLA, for instance), which inherently lower energy costs.
Preusse: This nice economic recovery is helping most sectors of our U.S. plastics marketplace. Some previous pent-up demand and new capital budgets are easing out actual purchase orders. Molding customers are investing again and are able to take advantage of the latest innovations available since the market went soft in October 2008. Energy conservation was always on the buying criteria, but nowadays, customers have moved this priority up the ROI decision tree.
Q: What was your company’s top technology development in 2009? What will it be this year? Is there a technology in your sector that processors are overlooking?
Keller: I would say that Optimizer control for desiccant dryers was our top development in 2009. Using several different technologies, including the patented Conair Drying Monitor, the system introduces just enough heat energy to efficiently maintain optimum drying conditions in the hopper. Air flow and temperature are fine-tuned automatically to compensate for throughput changes or variations in material temperature or ambient conditions. However, you can see this same kind of precision process automation in new gravimetric extrusion systems that track material flow to the extruder and adjust screw and haul-off speeds to maintain maximum throughput and product quality regardless of changes in process conditions.
Smith: In 2009, our top technology was the Maguire Purging Recovery System, which allows the efficient and affordable recovery of purgings. In 2010, we’re working on the next generation of the LPD vacuum dryer. The most overlooked technology is that of networking weigh scale blenders in order to access and integrate material consumption data.
The blender is the gateway to the process. Regardless of the type of process in which it is used, the blender electronically documents the weight of every pellet that enters the process. By proper, active reporting, blenders provide precise information on materials consumption, allowing for better control of inventory, better purchase planning, quality control, data for ISO, and proper planning for job costing.
Winstead: Rapid Granulator recently introduced our 600-Series, which is the largest of Rapid’s Open-Hearted range of easy-access granulators. These allow cleaning and maintenance times to be reduced by up to 50% without compromising safety or regrind quality. “Open-Hearted” describes the machine’s ergonomic design that, during a production change, for example, allows the operator to gain complete access to the rotor and cutterhouse at the heart of the machine in just three easy steps. This provides for a very rapid, visibly clean confirmation, eliminating the risk of granulate contamination after color/material changes. The same quick access benefits maintenance work as well.
Goldfarb: Our greatest technology development was in response to our energy-conscious customers in the form of our Adaptive Energy Optimizer and with our extensive data-logging system to track the important system variables, including power consumption. We have also made great strides in the processing of postconsumer materials, with a concentration on FDA-approved production.
Preusse: This year’s continued integration of auxiliaries—robot, dryer, temperature controls—into the molding machine frame and controls will show keen advantages to the traditional market offerings from separated suppliers. Take the historical mold shop workcell of auxiliaries scattered around a molding machine and limited communications between each. This integration can transform it into a much cleaner workcell, with mold, robot, and auxiliary recipes stored with each mold. Tech support is 24/7 with web-based services able to see the workcell and components. We finally are converting over to our long-awaited R8 robot controller this year, and several new features such as Smart Removal, Eco Mode, True Path, Soft Torque, and Part Track are sure to make the conversion worthwhile.
Q: Are there particular end markets that are hot now or will be soon for your customers?
Keller: The two end markets that have proven most resilient during the recent economic downturn are packaging and medical. These markets have shown continued growth and the processors serving them have been very receptive to newer process automation concepts. Packaging producers are eager to cut energy costs and increase productivity, while manufacturers of medical components have to eliminate process variability—an absolute necessity when it comes to maintaining quality and meeting stringent product-safety standards. I also think that automotive is destined to make a comeback in the next year or two, but it remains to be seen whether it will be one of the “hot” markets.
Smith: We see strong growth in packaging and medical; following a shakeout, we expect good recovery of the wood-composite market. Automotive-related processors are beginning to invest in capital equipment.
Winstead: Postconsumer recycling and specifically postconsumer PET recycling have been and will likely be the hot markets going forward. As momentum continues towards sustainability and green initiatives, the hope is that more packaging material will be diverted to the recycling community and away from landfills. As plastic packaging is facing increased public scrutiny, most companies that are heavy users of plastic packaging (think liquid containers) have self-imposed recycled content goals that should drive the diversion rate even higher. Additionally, there is a lot of discussion in the recycling community on legislative efforts to extend the responsibility of packaging producers to develop structures and support initiatives that take care of the packaging once discarded.
Goldfarb: A particularly hot market is the production and handling of postconsumer regrind (PCR). And, now that end users of PCR are integrating the processing and conditioning lines into their own production process, it will surely be a success.
Preusse: The packaging and medical plastics markets didn’t see nearly the drop automotive did during the last 18 months. Even unscrewing caps and closures that were traditionally dropped and conveyed into bowls for secondaries are now robot-captured, handled, closed, and tray-filled at the press.
Q: Which breakthroughs or major trends in your segment of the plastics business should processors watch closely?
Keller: I think processors can expect to see further developments in cutting energy consumption. Part of the solution will be found in the whole area of process control and process automation, which will allow processors not only to cut energy costs but also to operate their entire plant more efficiently, with less scrap, less downtime, and greater throughput. I also think you will continue to see breakthroughs in materials, including nanomaterials and nanotechnology. As industries like medical and automotive continue to push into new frontiers of plastics applications, this will require the development of new materials that are lighter and stronger, and have unique properties. Finally, there is the environmental trend that I think will drive the industry to find new and better ways to recycle both process regrind and also postconsumer scrap. We’ll see developments in processing biopolymers and compostable materials, too.
Smith: As an alternative to conventional desiccant dryers, use of vacuum dryers has grown steadily in the 10 years since we introduced our LPD system. With upcoming advances in LPD technology, we expect that growth to accelerate.
Winstead: From the materials side, PLA (polylactic acid) is worth mentioning. Although not as prevalent as PET, there are many packaging suppliers now using this material. Because it is clear like PET, there is some concern about the ability to have it easily separated from the PET waste stream. On the positive side, there may be an opportunity for recyclers who specialize in this material and have the desire to establish a recycling network for this.
For many processors, specifically on the industrial side, regrind has often been viewed as a problem or a necessary evil. Now with the increased demands from the end-user market to include regrind and/or recycled materials, regrind should really be viewed as a significant marketing opportunity as well as a cost-saving method. With the advances in cutting technology, reduction in energy consumption, and increased automation available in size-reduction systems, there are many cost-effective solutions available to provide quality regrind into the manufacturing process without adversely affecting production rates, part quality, or the plant environment.
Goldfarb: Higher-temp formulations for bioresins may open up more applications. Other trends to watch include the use of alternative energy sources in an effort to reduce energy costs, enhanced control and monitoring systems such as FACS [Factory Acquisition Control System], redefinition of partnerships with customers where vendors supply much closer support and mentoring through the Internet, and industry and plant consolidations with customers choosing fewer select vendors with whom they will work.
Preusse: Energy efficiency is more important than ever before, but with such marketing claims, the buyer should take time for actual testing and comparisons to realize true investment returns. We are spending a lot of time in drying technology comparisons between the various market configurations and soon will display a combination of rotary-wheel and twin-bed desiccant towers designed to use the best advantages of both technologies for the least energy consumption.
Q: What’s your prediction for your industry segment’s growth in 2011? Better than 2010?
Keller: We have seen positive signs for the economy so far in the first half of this year. It has actually been better than we anticipated, but there are so many unknowns—the monetary crisis in Europe and concern about a slowdown in China—that it’s hard to predict what will happen in the next six months, much less in 2011. In general, I think we can expect modest growth in 2011, but because this year has so far been better than expected, it is unlikely to be better still.
Smith: We see modest growth following a healthy 2010.
Winstead: The granulator segment has been recovering steadily since the second half of 2009 and has continued into the first half of 2010. Looking forward, we are optimistic for the remainder of 2010 and all of 2011. However, there are many remaining challenges for Rapid Granulator and the industry at large. These include a weaker construction market, reduced overall demand in the automotive segment, and still-depressed in-plant capacity utilization numbers. However, the overall economic environment is on a stronger footing and there are signs that this will continue for the foreseeable future.
Goldfarb: Optimistic, but slow and steady growth as right-sized companies find their new norm. We find the market made up of specialty markets such as recycling (PCR) and bioresins, with steady movement from stable performers like packaging and medical.
Preusse: Since the recession fall was so deep and so long, we are forecasting 25%-30% growth over the 2009 contraction and an additional 25% growth in 2011 over 2010 for our U.S. operations. There are many aging robots, machines, and auxiliaries that are overdue for replacement. Even automotive is active again, so there are good signs for this recovery to be sustaining and fruitful for us. —Amie Chitwood