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Bob Hatch notes on NPE 2009

I can’t believe it has been three years since the last NPE. I have worked or talked with hundreds of molders and toolmakers since the last time we got together in Chicago but, going in, I can’t be sure how this NPE is going to play out. Almost everyone I have had discussions with has told me about the equipment companies and big material firms are going to take a pass on NPE this year. Many of these same people have told me their companies are not going to pay their way this year due to the poor economy.

I have to admit that I drove to Chicago from my West Des Moines office just to save a few dollars. I left at 8 a.m. Monday and arrived in Chicago around 2 p.m., leaving me 3 hours to check out the show. It wasn’t hard to tell attendance was really down this year. No congestion in any of the buildings, no crowds around any of the booths, and aisle traffic was greatly reduced. The aisle traffic was also made up of more business owners and managers instead of the blue-collar members of our craft.

I picked up one of the show books that listed the companies represented at NPE2009, checked off the ones I especially wanted to visit, and started through the North building, trying to catch as many of my high-priority booths as possible. Well, it didn’t take more than 45 minutes and I was done in the North building, then I drifted over to the South building. It took longer in South because I kept running into old friends and making new acquaintances. A sales manager for a company I used to work with was nice enough to stop and talk with me for a while, giving me an opportunity to take a break from walking and to catch up on what he has been doing for the last 10 years or so.

I ran into some of the technical folks from Ticona and found out what some of their product line changes have been, such as higher-impact grades of one of their acetal lines. Great company and they have assembled an equally, possibly even greater, group of people to represent them in the field.

Needless to say, many other colleagues popped up from time to time. Usually I see several hundred old-time friends at NPE, but this year the total number of former acquaintances I ran into was closer to 100. Frankly, the lower attendance really sped up my progress in passing through several buildings. The walk area between the North and South buildings was a little bit congested by attendees but not so much as to make it difficult to pass from building to building. All in all, it was a great first day for my first 3 hours at the show.

I didn’t have a room reservation for Monday night so I tried calling some Chicago friends that I always talk about and pretty much struck out, so I called the Holiday Inn and found a room just west of downtown Chicago. I checked around to see if any companies were hosting the traditional hospitality rooms as they have done in the past. Struck out there, too. Those companies I knew weren’t hosting, and I didn’t feel comfortable crashing the ones I didn’t know; plus, I was just too tired from driving all day and walking my feet into the carpet in the North and South buildings.

I decided to drive out to the West suburbs, claim my room, and go through the literature to find out where I needed to visit on Tuesday. I spent an hour checking out the book, then went out to get a bite to eat and turn in for the evening.

Tuesday came quickly. I skipped breakfast, jumped in the car, and headed back to McCormick Place. Traffic wasn’t so bad, and I found a place to park on the North side of the buildings close to Soldier Field parking, paid the $19 parking fee, and walked back to the main concourse. I met more people I could share stories with, went for coffee with several of them, and then decided to try the West building. This building seemed to capture my attention more than the North and South buildings, but possibly I wasn’t as tired on Tuesday as I had been on Monday after I had been driving for 6 hours and then walking for 3 more.

I saw many interesting booth displays in the three buildings, including Tinius-Olsen, where they were exhibiting a new piece of melt flow equipment. They promised to send me the appropriate information so I could see what they were doing differently from the traditional melt flow testing equipment. It’s been a couple of weeks now and the information still hasn’t arrived. I hope I had them process my plastic NPE Show card correctly because I am ready for better info on a way to test the flow properties of a given plastic material (see http://www.plasticstoday.com/imm/articles/troubleshooter-part-116 for my initial comments on this).

I thought that the spiral flow testing procedure would have pushed the old melt flow test out of the way by now. The old melt flow test was originally intended as an incoming lot inspection procedure for the military and was never intended to be used for injection molding since it has never taken into account the shear properties of injecting plastic into a mold. Due to this shear factor, I thought for sure we would all be using the spiral flow test procedure as our standard at least by now, if not 20 years ago.

I saw a lot of material handling equipment that seemed to be fairly foolproof, water temperature control units (TCUs) that had panels full of blinking lights spewing printouts, some of which were integrated into material drying equipment—and on and on. I was hoping I would see newer and better TCUs that would help eliminate the quick-disconnect water fittings and waterline jumpers on the back of the mold, and I also wanted to see better manifold systems that properly pressurize water flowing into the manifolds and then out through ½-inch hoses to the appropriate water circuits. These manufacturers build good equipment, but they don’t tell molders how to hook up their equipment to the mold so it cools correctly. That would help eliminate much of the warpage and slow cycles that we have been plagued with over the last 40 years or so.

I stopped at the Husky booth to get a poker chip they were molding and giving out to see if they were doing anything special this year. They always try to have a mold running that is cycling faster than most molders would expect. Of course, we all know that hot runner molds run an average of 20% faster than a regular two-plate mold, but we all like to see what Husky is running at NPE. I asked the booth attendants what was new and exciting but no one seemed to know what I was looking for.

Over at the Cincinnati Milacron booth, they were showing only four or five machines, but they were displaying multishot capability, which I think is important because, in my opinion, multishot equipment is the future of the injection molding industry. This stop was high on my list because I signed the purchase order for the first machine Cincinnati sold back in 1968. It was a 375-ton, 32-oz molding machine and is still running today at my old company just down the street from my present office.

I decided I had seen every booth of interest to me this year, spent extra time in the booths that were displaying new versions of old ideas, and also visited the booths with new and different suggestions for molders and moldmakers alike. If I was really interested in what was being displayed I spent extra time in the booth, and if not, I handed them my card and arranged for information to be sent to me. The only problem with having the information sent out later is that I have noticed that sometimes it doesn’t get sent or it takes many weeks before I receive it.

Anyway, it was past lunchtime and I was looking for someone to buy me lunch. I finally ran into an old amigo and he asked me if I was up for a bite. I suggested I wasn’t really very hungry but I could go along and drink a glass of iced tea and join in their discussion. (Actually, I was pretty starved after skipping breakfast but I didn’t want to seem too needy on the second day of the show.) We had a wonderful lunch in the Hyatt Regency and compared notes on what we had seen at the show. I picked up several ideas on which buildings to roam through during the afternoon.

I visited the booths that had been recommended by my lunch friends and found that they were right; I had missed some good moldbuilding companies, new material offerings from both old and new companies (such as Sabic), and even new molding machine manufacturers offering new versions of electric machines. I found out that many of the new all-electric offerings are better than before, especially in the area of dependability. The electric servos used to burn out on a regular basis or at least sooner than I liked; these new ones are a lot better. I decided it was time to take a look at the newer electrics and spent the rest of Tuesday catching up on what I had missed.

Five o’clock came quickly and I found my room for the evening and settled in for an evening of catching up on my notes. I was about an hour into my review when the phone rang and I got an invite to dinner. Not being one to turn people down for such activities, I accepted and went down to the hotel lobby to wait for the car being sent to pick me up. It was just a 5-minute wait and I was whisked away for an evening of good eats, good drinks, and a chance to compare notes with old friends on what they found most interesting at the show. I wrote notes like crazy and came up with many new directions to go on Wednesday. It wasn’t long before the food and drink slowed down my note-taking and we ended up comparing this NPE to past shows. The comparison was quite favorable, better in some cases due to the smaller crowds and better booth accessibility. But we all agreed it would be much better when the economy starts gearing up again and we get to see all our friends in 2012.

I decided I would return to the show Wednesday morning, look up the displays suggested by my dinner partners on Tuesday evening, and see what they found so darn fascinating. I did find a booth occupied by a company that does laser engraving, mold polishing, and other types of machining (High Tech Corp. out of Lee Summit, MO); they’re really good at what they do.

I finished my morning by spending another hour each in the North, South, and West buildings. By now I was getting phone calls from people that just found out I was in Chicago for the show but I had planned to leave the show later on Wednesday afternoon so the opportunity to get together with anyone was fading away. I had a good three days at the show, saw many friends I wanted to see, visited many booths to get information on new products, and visited many booths where companies were displaying basically the same things as they had in years gone by.

It was about 4 p.m. when I rolled out of McCormick Place looking for a road going west. It didn’t take long before I found a sign indicating how to get to Interstate 80 Westbound. One thing I will say for Chicago is that they certainly know how to mark their downtown streets and Interstate signs to make it easy for visitors to get around.

I was back in Des Moines by 10 p.m., had dinner with my son, and was able to get my show handouts filed away before it was time to retire for the evening. It took me a couple of days to recuperate from all the driving and walking around but it certainly was a worthwhile trip and I can’t wait for the next NPE in only three more years. Bob Hatch

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