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December 5, 2000

15 Min Read
The plant of the future


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As 2000 comes to a close the Blueprint for the 21st Centuryreaches its conclusion. In an effort to look ahead and contemplatewhat the next decade has in store for the injection molding industry,IMM asked machinery manufacturer Milacron to imagine how the moldingplant of the future might look. Engineers at Milacron dreamedup the facility pictured above and the machine on p. 14. We alsospoke with industry veterans and experts for their opinions onwhat to expect from the molding machine and industry during thenext 10 years.

The future: Human capital is scarce. Resources are dwindling.Information technology is the world's primary economic driver.The molding plant of 2010 is minimally staffed, molding jobs aretriggered by consumer demand, and efficiency is key. Here's theplant:

A. The facility can be controlled and managed fromanywhere in the world via a single workstation, laptop, or PDA.A server manages everything from generating purchase orders tocoordinating shipping instructions.

B. Orders are triggered by consumers who drive"manufacture to order" operations. Lead times are shorterand products have shorter life cycles.

C. ENERGY

  • As energy costs increase, facilities become self-sufficient. Solar collectors and windmills provide supplemental energy.

  • Windowless molding operations are conducted below ground. 

  • Air-to-air heat exchangers capture and reuse heat to warm the plant and condition resins.

  • Molding operations on the lower level save money:

  • Below ground, ambient temperatures are consistent and stable.

  •  Natural geothermal heat is available.

  •  Heat from machines is recirculated.

  •  Fuel cells are the primary source of machine energy.

D. MOLDMAKING

  • Most molds are produced in-house using stereolithography techniques, powdered metal, and other rapid tooling techniques.

  •  Molds use universal frames, off the shelf, with custom cavities and cores.

  •  For short production runs moldless stereolithography produces parts

E. Resin is stored on the first level and gravity-fedto the molding level.

F. Plastic recycling, the primary source of resin,is performed on the first level. New laws force the recyclingof resin into cores of new parts. Virgin materials, colorants,and additives are "allocated" to molders by law.

G. Molding machines are all-electric. Fossil fuelsare largely unavailable, making hydraulic fluids scarce.

H. Finished parts are counted, packaged at themachine, and conveyed to shipping or an integral assembly facility.

I. Robots provide all machine services. If a machinepart fails, a robot pulls a replacement part from inventory andorders a new replacement.


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If you've been followingthis year's Blueprint for the 21st Century series, you know thatevery segment of the molding industry anticipates big changesin the coming decade. Consolidation, globalization, informationintegration, and new and greater customer demands have spawneda host of management, sales, and manufacturing strategies.

But these challenges and changes don't stop with the customer,molder, moldmaker, or designer. On the other side of the foodchain are machinery and material suppliers. They're not immuneto the pressures exerted on the injection molding industry, andthey, too, foresee change and opportunity.

IMM talked to several machinery suppliers for perspectiveson what the next 10 or so years hold for the injection moldingindustry. The short answer? Suppliers are becoming partners.

And so we end the year as we started it, with an assessmentof the undulating molding landscape. First up, the now-famous"e" word.

E-molding Solutions

No one is calling it a magic button, but most suppliers agreethat many of the solutions to the big challenges they will facelie in a small computer chip. "Machine control will be thecentral gateway, if you will, to the whole cell, and the wholecell will be connected to the Internet for troubleshooting andmaintenance in real time," explains Dale Werle, vp and gmat Ferromatik Milacron North America.

When it comes to molding machine controls, Kurt Fenske, vp,sales and marketing at Engel North America, says that equipmentmanufacturers will continue to harness technologies that moreclosely monitor, record, and streamline the process than theydo today. "The process and mold characteristics will becomeeven more transparent and more automatic in real time in orderto reliably and consistently bring higher yields, minimize cycleinterruptions, optimize machine capability usage, and leveragethe benefits of connectivity to outside support and resource databases."

Hettinga Chairman Siebolt Hettinga adds, "An intuitiveand self-adjusting machine will be imperative for our customersto be competitive. Molders will need to reduce the skilled laborrequired to produce high-quality products. This can only be donewith equipment that can determine if there is a problem and correctit on the fly."

CIRCA 1979: BACK TO

THE PLANT OF THE FUTURE

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Some 21 years ago Milacron (then Cincinnati Milacron) set out to conceptualize the plant of the future. This is the result. Wire-guided carts, popular at the time but ultimately not widely used, move and change molds. To accommodate the carts, presses are oriented in rows along the same axis. Freestanding robots, then a relative novelty, are floor-mounted beside the machine. How will the 2000 plant of the future pan out?





E-molding Meets E-commerce

Information technology and the Internet won't just be toolsfor monitoring the molding process. It's also a way to unite disparateoperations and give machinery suppliers an opportunity to integratethemselves more into the customer's operations. "With a continuinggrowth of multiplant companies, remote processing and remote monitoringwill become commonplace," says Tim Glassburn, vp, ToshibaMachine Co. of America. "Even with single plant molders,centralizing production information and remote processing willbecome a standard. The increasing need for reject management andcost control is pushing molders to standardize processing frommachine to machine and plant to plant."

As a result, most agree with Glassburn that remote diagnosticsand engineering services via the Internet will become a standardway of doing business. "Molders will be able to go onlineto the equipment manufacturer for immediate diagnosis and troubleshooting,including reprogramming," he says.

Some believe that the need for speed may be so great that accessto supply chain management information, production, tooling, materialsdata, and data we've only just begun to dream up may also be madeavailable through websites of a single-sourced machinery supplier.

Glassburn adds that he expects the Internet to play a biggerrole in the buying and selling process, as well as the transferof information. "Molders will use the Internet at an increasingrate over the next five years to search out information from allindustry sources, including manufacturers and trade magazines,"he says.

"This technology will have an impact on everyone,"says Hettinga. "Although companies may not purchase theirequipment outright from the Internet, as we build our equipmenton a modular basis, we can use the Internet to mix and match stationsand injection units," he explains. "Inquiries can beinstantly answered to make sure customers are matching the correctunit to their needs."

Competitor Coalitions

Over the next few years, say Engel's Fenske and BattenfeldAustria's Reinhard Gruber (among others), globalization and time-to-markettrends may force molding machine manufacturers to partner notonly with their customers, moldmakers, and auxiliaries suppliers,but also with one another. After all, a customer may need special,proprietary molding systems from one supplier, and the same fromthat supplier's direct competitor.

"There is already more teamwork going on in the businesscommunity than ever before. Now we have relations with automationand resin suppliers, and moldmakers . . . even with some of ourcompetitors," Gruber admits. "When we are all involvedin seeing a project through to a successful end, we are not competitors.We are not just competing head-to-head with standard machines."

Fenske calls such cooperative initiatives between competitorsa "win-win-win" situation for all involved. "Connectivitybrings death to 'us and them' adversarial thinking all along thevalue chain. The costs [of direct competition] are too high anddon't correct diminishing returns. Global partnering at the technologicaland corporate levels will have done away with supply-side thinkingonce and for all."

As molding systems become more fully integrated and more complex,as shareholder/owner value and profitability become even morethe target, and as competition for market share gets more global,a careful balance between streamlined, coordinated manufacturing,value, and quality will become more vital to supply side success.These are key reasons why some say supplier partnerships willplay a greater role. "It will become increasingly importantto pool the knowledge base of experts to provide the best solutionsin the future," says Scott Kroeger, marketing director, VanDorn Demag.

How close will this cooperation be? These days, rumors aboutsupplier consolidations, liquidations, mergers, divestitures,and acquisitions abound. Some supply siders welcome these moves,feeling that they allow suppliers to strengthen their abilityto support a global reach, better power their marketing initiatives,and minimize risks through diversification.

The Machine of the Future

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What will your molding machine look like in 10 years or so? We asked Milacron to fantasize a little. This is what was dreamed up.

A. INJECTION UNIT

  • All machines have multimolding capabilities and allow compounding at the press. m Multiple shooting pots are tied to "intelligent" mixing nozzles. Material is drawn from any shooting pot and melt is aerated with gas.

  • Color/material changeovers occur instantly.

  • Inmold decorating is standard and customized for private labeling and retailing differentiation.

  • Setup time is eliminated. Good parts are produced after one or two shots.

B. CLAMP

  • The clamp is powered with linear motors.

  • Mold closure is performed by magnetic force.

  • Smart molds feature "intelligent" sensors and valving integrated with artificial intelligence.

C. CONTROL

  • All machine controls are PC-based and feature artificial intelligence technology. m Mold temperature is controlled by the machine control.

  • The process is monitored and compensated with every shot.

  • Bluetooth (wireless) technology is integrated in controls. Enterprise-wide networking is performed at the machine level.

  • Capabilities include wireless production reports, QC reports, documentation, and customer invoicing.

  • All troubleshooting is performed by suppliers via the Internet. m All service parts and replacement parts are ordered and received just in time by the control.

D. ROBOT

  • A robot inspects each part and feeds results back to the control, eliminating the need for a QC department and QC inspectors.

  • Robot advances include human-like visual and tactile senses.





Standard Customization

Despite such talk of open-minded collaboration and togetherness,machinery suppliers still develop expertise in application-specificprocesses. Most suppliers agree that we can expect to see moresingle-sourced cells, whether they come from one supplier or acollaborative group.

In time, says Engel's Fenske, "'Please buy what I haveto offer' will completely give way to 'What may I build for you?'Injection molding itself will more and more become one of manycomponents in fully integrated, fully automated, flexible manufacturing,production and assembly systems or cells."

Van Dorn's Kroeger explains why. "Pioneering machinerymanufacturers saw the potential in the market decades before Mr.Maguire said 'plastics' in The Graduate. Since then, we have seenthe emergence of multitudes of new applications springing fromthe minds of innovators, as well as the development of new resins,mold designs, machine configurations, and support equipment. Inthe past five years, we have seen more new technologies emergethan ever before. The industry has been flooded with a wealthof knowledge and creativity and new demands are arising."

Along with Kroeger, many machine OEMs attribute the growingcall for specialized systems to the explosion in new applicationsfor molded parts, new molding materials, and new molding technologies.Consider these process specialties and you'll understand the importanceof customization: micromolding, multimolding, microcellular foaming,gas assist, metal, and ceramic molding.

Still, Gruber, our source at pioneering specialist BattenfeldAustria, says standard machines are essential. "One thingwe have learned is that although you cannot do everything, youcan only be a key player if you have a good standard machine range,small tonnage to high tonnage," he says. "Based on thebasic, standardized platform for standard machines, you can makespecialties."

Kroeger agrees. "Customers are looking for mass customization,which means that they can get machines configured to their applicationswithout sacrifice in lead time. In order to meet that need, customerswill be able to choose from an expanded list of pre-engineeredplug-and-play options."

A Crystal Ball
for Materials and Design

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Short of a material that designs and molds itself, what can we expect in the way of improvements for both materials and design tools in the next decade? To answer this question, IMM investigated well-grounded visions of products and technologies in their infancy that have the potential to mature.

Materials Magic

Every application brings its own list of demands to the table, and meeting those requirements economically has driven resin suppliers to create thousands of grades aimed at specific targets. In fact, development of new resins (built from the molecular level) nearly ceased in the past decade, as tweaking and modification became more cost-effective ways to serve customers.

There are signs that materials development may continue in this vein while also revisiting its roots-the days when "better living through chemistry" was the norm. Recently, a new material created for automotive exteriors (Sollx from GE Plastics) made headlines as the first chemically new polymer in a decade. According to Nani Beccalli, vp/gm of GE Plastics, investment in new molecules is becoming an expensive proposition. "Blending and mixing is more economical, and what I see happening more often is an increase in the sophistication of these technologies. We will see a continuous proliferation of products made to a narrow range of customer requirements for temperature, chemical resistance, tensile strength, and so forth."

Software ESP

A myriad of technologies making their debut this year have the potential to significantly change the way designers interact with software and other members of the design team. Internet-based design collaboration and application service providers (ASPs) are already on the upswing. More developed versions of these technologies are envisioned in the next wave of CAD/CAM and analysis programs.

Collaboration using the Web holds a great deal of promise for geographically diverse design teams. These sites can also offer content that reduces the design cycle time. For instance, Conferos (formerly buyplastics.com), which went live last month, has broadened its services to include not only collaboration space, but also tools for product data management, transaction services, and part cost estimates.

Another interesting development in design software appeared recently with the release of think3's thinkdesign 6.0 (a CAD package offering 3-D solids, surfaces, wireframe, and 2-D drafting). Developers have married voice input with the user interface for command, control, and data entry using a new speech protocol from Microsoft.

Think3's Claudia Guadagnini, team leader of the speech project, believes that this feature will become more prevalent in the future. "There is a lot of interest in command-and-control voice applications, especially from PDA manufacturers," she explains. "In the past, voice input meant dictation applications, which still do not work reliably because the technology is not developed enough. However, for command-and-control input, Microsoft released a very reliable source code, offering it free of charge, and that will spur more voice-controlled applications in the near future."—Michelle Maniscalco





All-electric Future?

No discussion of the future of injection molding machines wouldbe complete without comment on the impact of all-electric technology.Though the degree to which all-electric technology will take overis hotly debated, no one denies that servodriven machines arehere to stay.

For example, Netstal Machinery's Dieter Klug, president, andChristian Stettler, systems engineering manager, admit that injectionunit drive systems and possibly even clamping units may go all-electricin time. But they argue that until the cost of servomotor technologyis dramatically reduced, cost per part penalties will be incurred.

Battenfeld's Gruber agrees, saying, "There is a lot oftalk about the precision and energy savings of the all-electricmolding machine, but customers must ask themselves, what are thecosts of the parts? The best solution to reducing part costs willbe the best one for our customers."

Netstal's Klug and Stettler add that more frequently the marketis realizing that it cannot get a 100 percent electric machinewith the same performance as a conventional machine. Hybrids maypresently be the best choice for high-power projects, like precisionthinwalling. However, all-electrics reportedly will become the21st century general-purpose press.

Some suppliers of all-electrics, like Toshiba Machine, agree.Toshiba's Glassburn expects molding to convert largely to all-electricmachines, with a dominant share of sales devoted to electrics."The spectrum of electric machines will be much broader,from very small to ultra large," he says.

Jerry Johnson, vp, JSW Plastics Machinery, believes that withinfive years the industry will achieve true lights-out manufacturing,thanks largely to developments in electric servodrive technology."The problems that have inhibited the application of lights-outmanufacturing will be overcome," he says. "Take machinemaintenance, for example. All-electric machines require significantlyless maintenance over a typical part run. That means less potentialdowntime. All-electrics also allow you to get back up and runningmuch faster."

Milacron's Werle says all-electric machines provide lower per-partcosts, an increasing business advantage as deregulated utilitiesdrive up electric rates and OEMs pressure molders for give-backs."We're penetrating the high-performance markets now, suchas packaging and optical media, while building our base in commoditymolding, and believe the only thing debatable about the dominanceof electric technology is the time it may take," he says.

Checking in with a more contrarian view is Robert Schad, chairmanof Husky. Known for his directness, he describes the phenomenonwith two words: "mass hypnotism." Electrics, he says,make sense in smaller machines between 50 and 100 tons. As themachine power increases, however, Schad sees more benefit in technologysuch as new motors and clamping and hydraulic systems that hiscompany and others are implementing. The exception is the plasticatingscrew. Electricity makes sense there, he says.

Regarding precision, Schad believes that in general a hydromechanicalmachine can be as good as an electric, and maybe better. He saysbeing analog rather than digital is an advantage when compensatingfor resin viscosity changes.

The End

Overall, machine makers feel good about prospects for the industry,and they look forward to playing a larger role in customers' lives.So doing, Guido Radig, marketing manager for Krauss-Maffei, pointsto automation, materials substitution, value-added functions,and integration as trends it is watching closely for its customers.Says Rick Shaffer, vp, Demag Ergotech, "I would agree thatmachinery makers will become almost like consultants on all aspectsof the molding process, and that they will be involved earlierin the design process than ever before. I disagree with the timeframe. We need to provide this service now." Van Dorn's Kroegeradds, "In the next five years, customers will be lookingfor more from their machinery suppliers. They will be lookingfor processing solutions that will improve their part costs andmachine efficiencies." JSW's Johnson concludes, saying, "Weare no longer just selling iron."

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