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Manufacturing in developed countries must concentrate on complex leading-edge applications using the best technology and high productivity, which of necessity entails advanced and extensive automation.Automation may prove to be the single most necessary element not only of the current economic recovery, but also of real prosperity in the postrecession global economy. Robotics will be as necessary for advanced manufacturing in emerging economies as in developed countries, and in fact they already are.

Rob Neilley

July 7, 2010

10 Min Read
Automation ready to move recovery into 

Manufacturing in developed countries must concentrate on complex leading-edge applications using the best technology and high productivity, which of necessity entails advanced and extensive automation.

Automation may prove to be the single most necessary element not only of the current economic recovery, but also of real prosperity in the postrecession global economy. Robotics will be as necessary for advanced manufacturing in emerging economies as in developed countries, and in fact they already are.


The three leading companies whose executives comment below on the role of automation going forward, along with many others, have been working hard in recent years to offer a broader variety of robotic solutions to the plastics processing sector. They have been working even harder to make their technology easier to integrate into a production system and simpler to program, operate, and maintain.

So as applications become at once more complex and more demanding of high productivity, there is no choice but to automate to the maximum extent possible. Some good news: The following responses to our questions make it clear that there will be plenty of automation choices available to us.

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?
Healy: Of course, the economy is, and continues to be, the biggest factor affecting plastics processors in general and the automation sector in particular. Things are certainly a lot better now than they were a year ago, but conditions continue to be quite unstable and the tight credit market only makes it worse. Business levels have been erratic and customer confidence seems to be very fragile. Events like the monetary crisis in Europe and fears about its global impact are often enough to cause some processors to put purchasing plans on hold again. I think we will continue in this cyclical, up-and-down pattern—driven mainly by economic uncertainty—well into 2011.

Arceneaux: The current economic condition is having the largest effect on industrial robotics in the plastics industry. While spending and sales are expected to increase in 2010, the slow rebounding economy is still presenting the biggest challenge. Looking forward to 2011, it is important to continue to provide innovative technology and superior products and services to remain competitive and meet customer needs as the plastics industry begins to rebound.

Purcell: Molders continue to launch new product programs and reinvest in volume jobs running in their plants with automation strategies and implementation. Molders generally want more than just pick-and-place robots. Both custom and proprietary molders need value added, highest quality control assurance, workcell safety, and special packaging or handling requirements for molded parts, and robots continue to be the core handler for these objectives in any molding cell. This demand is driving better planning, project management, efficient program launches, and the highest mold cell optimization possible to maintain competitive prices and razor-thin margins.

U.S. plastics market sources reported more than 60% growth in robot sales during Q1 2010 compared with Q1 2009, which illustrates a key capital budget sector molders were anxious to fund again during their economic recovery to build their stronger future. Even in molding projects exported to lower-labor-cost countries, use of heavy robotics and automation for initial demolding of plastic parts and collection increased quality throughput.

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?
Healy: The biggest technological development for Sepro America was the Visual 2 and Touch 2 controls. Several digital technologies—including a joystick that allows operators to actually steer the robot to fine-tune its movements—have come together to create controls that are both powerful and easy to use. The systems have big LCD screens, almost unlimited connectivity, and on-board documentation that makes learning and troubleshooting simple.

This year’s news will center around the new S5 range of Cartesian beam robots. The S5 is the fifth generation of Sepro robot technology and it is designed on a modular platform concept that will allow us to provide ever more flexible solutions to customers within a very short time. I think some processors may be overlooking how affordable automation can be these days and what a good investment a robot can be.

Arceneaux: In 2009, Stäubli introduced a new line of high-speed Scara robots, well suited for pick and place, material handling, packaging, assembly, loading, testing, and dispensing applications. The new TS40, TS60, and TS80 models offer a 30% increase in performance over the previous RS Series. In addition to these improvements, Scara robots are well suited for vertical injection molding processes and offer a more economical solution than the six-axis robot system.

For 2010, Stäubli introduced the TX200 Series. The TX200 offers unique benefits and provides the best possible process quality and increased productivity. The TX200 Series is largest of the six-axis, heavy-payload series, boasting a payload of more than 100 kg and over a 2m reach. The TX200 robot arm has an enclosed structure and Class 4, ISO 14644-1 cleanliness, and is ideal for injection molding applications.

Stäubli has also continued to evolve its Valplast user-friendly software featuring a simple interface that allows the creation of trajectories and an appealing IO logic. The advanced software technology gives flexibility and allows users to have one robot tending two different molding machines.

Purcell: We introduced the new R8 robot series to the marketplace. The new controller provides a better level of molding machine integration capability for users to operate one common user interface for molding machine and robot. For the stand-alone robot, R8 has many new features. Smart Removal software, once activated, optimizes robot axis motions in the molding area to shave the path and intensify accelerations and decelerations for the fastest part removal times. Even our best technicians writing a quick removal program were beat by 0.4 second in Smart Removal mode.

Eco Mode, where the robot does not need to fly, automatically slows the axis speed to preserve longer, smoother operation. For example, speed during the main traversing axis can be slowed down. Even newer this year, Soft allows the robot to respond to increasing momentum and torque loads on the robot main arms to run more safely. A setup tech may have a lead or lag in pulling a part off a mold that stresses the associated robot axis, rails, or bearings. This feature greatly reduces these issues.

Analog Vacuum gives the user control of the vacuum circuits on the teach pendant, compared to controlling the circuits physically mounted on the robot—a setup tech’s dream. And Safety Regions allow the user to define boxes where the robot may not be moved to further protect against mistakes and crashes.

Q: Are there particular end markets that are hot now or will be soon for your customers?
Healy: When the North American automotive industry really collapsed in 2009, it forced everyone to look elsewhere for business. We’ve seen a lot of interest in the medical market, and the appliance sector, particularly large white goods, has also remained quite active. It is more difficult for offshore companies to compete in this market and there seems to be significant growth, perhaps because of pent-up demand fueled by the rebate program on energy-efficient appliances. At the same time, we see hopeful signs in automotive as well. Processors seem optimistic about new orders by mid-2010 and, as a result, they are looking at adding new equipment.

Arceneaux: There are several markets that present large opportunities for industrial robotics. The pharmaceutical and life science markets are beginning to develop and will quickly evolve. The food and packaging, solar, and medical device markets are also big opportunities with large potential for robotics in the future.

In order to meet the demands of these emerging markets, Stäubli has developed new innovative technologies and products. The TX HE robot series is ideally suited for robot applications in very humid environments such as food processing, cleaning, etc. The Stericlean robot is the first fully VHP (vapor hydrogen peroxide) resistant robot designed for the pharmaceutical and life science markets. Suitable for the VHP sterilization process, the Stericlean robot can fully automate operations in an isolator or cleanroom environment.

Purcell: The packaging and medical plastics markets didn’t see nearly the drop that the automotive segment did during the last 18 months. Technology used for items such as medical pipette tips and plastics cutlery—high-cavity, fast-cycle applications using high-speed side-entry robots handing off to a second robot for collection, cavity traceability, and vision inspection—are by now conventional in that very competitive sector of the plastics processing world. 

Q: Which breakthroughs or major trends in your segment of the plastics business should processors watch closely?
Healy: You’ve got to keep costs down in order to compete in today’s global economy and one of the best ways to do that is to automate. You cut labor costs, you stabilize your process, increase quality, and reduce scrap, and all of this makes you more competitive. The old excuse that automation is expensive doesn’t hold anymore. Over the last five years, the cost to put a robot on a 1000-ton molding machine has dropped from about $90,000 to as little as $60,000.

With the high-performance, low-cost servo beam robots available today, a molder can automate a 300-ton machine for less than $30,000. That means molders can automate even relatively simple applications with affordable pick-and-place robots. And yesterday’s pick-and-place applications are becoming more completely automated. Increasingly processors are setting up complete automated manufacturing cells because they don’t have (or can’t afford) the personnel needed to do the multistep postmold operations at acceptable rates and with acceptable quality.

Arceneaux: End users will continue to see user-friendly software that requires minimal training and a supplemental hardware package that allows the end user to integrate the robot easily into the workcell. Cleaner robot arms and faster, more flexible solutions will continue to develop, allowing the robot to perform secondary operations, such as packaging, sorting, palletizing, inspecting, etc. Another trend with growing presence is turnkey solutions. A turnkey solution requires minimal integration time and training, and allows end users to focus on their injection molding business rather than on the complexity of their automation.

Purcell: Molders should not get stuck in conventional thinking that has changed in their competitors’ camps. Unscrewing caps and closures that were traditionally dropped and conveyed into bowls for secondaries are now robot captured, handled, closed, and trays filled at the molding machine. What were dedicated “hard automation” fixtures and tooling have evolved to allow easy and quick changeovers. This has been seen recently with inmold labeling workcells where label-dispensing modules are flexible for various labels/parts, a concept known as “IML Flex.”

If a molder is still running an old molding machine, old mold, or old robot to stay profitable, be careful your neighbor hasn’t invested in all new technology with gains that could include your next molding contract. There is a lot of old equipment running due to tight capital budgets and it’s like trying keep a 10-plus-year-old car on the road. At some point, it’s costing you more not to upgrade and update.

Q: What is your prediction for your industry segment’s growth in 2011? Better than 2010?
Healy: There are still a lot of uncertainties in the economy. As soon as you begin to think you might be breaking out of the slump, it seems things go south again for a while. But we’re optimistic. Unless something dramatic happens, 2010 will be a substantial improvement over 2009 and we are expecting that trend will continue into 2011.

Arceneaux: As the economy recovers, we expect growth in the plastics industry for 2011. We anticipate a 3%-5% increase worldwide for industrial robots in the plastics industry for 2011. Asia will likely see a larger growth than Europe and North America, as companies continue to manufacture in Asia.

Purcell: Since the recession’s 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 overdue for replacement and with the added innovation benefits and competitive challenges, we see successful molders investing, and Wittmann Battenfeld well positioned in the value proposition. Even automotive is active again, so there are good signs that this recovery will be sustainable and fruitful for us. —Rob Neilley

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