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November 3, 2004

12 Min Read
Thermoforming flexibility drives growth

The SPE Thermoforming Division 2004 parts competition included three categories?Cut Sheet, Roll-fed, and the People?s Choice award. In Cut Sheet, the Consumer Entertainment award went to the two-person bass boat from Johnson Outdoors (Grand Rapids, MI). In Roll-fed, the Consumer Packaging award went to the holiday ornament package from Prent Corp. (Janesville, WI). The People?s Choice award went to a medical device, the Heart Defibrillation Control from Freetech Plastics Inc. (Fremont, CA).

Exhibited by RPT at the SPE Thermoforming Conference, a large RoboTrim system is shown trimming a plastic part. The company?s TrimPro software allows users to simulate and program a robot in 3-D space. RPT jointly developed the product with Fanuc Robotics based on its SimPro software. It provides a processor with the tools needed to simulate and optimize cycle times of actual work cells.

Kintz Plastics? (Howes Cave, NY) four-station rotary thermoformer is said to be the largest in the eastern U.S. It can mold components up to 9-ft wide by 13-ft long with up to a 60-inch depth.

These clamshell food containers from Lavergne Group (Ville d Amjou, PQ) demonstrate an application for thermoformed PET. Shown close-up are a hinge and a snap.


That was the message at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Div. Conference (Sept. 18-21, Indianapolis, IN). Dennis Northrop, technical services manager for Avery Dennison and the technical program chair for the thermoforming conference, says that it?s becoming critical for thermoformers to understand how to match equipment with the market served, particularly in taking a proprietary interest vs. providing custom services.

?With custom work, you have a very diverse customer base that requires you to have a range of equipment suitable for a variety of products,? says Northrop. In the proprietary business you need equipment that can deliver speed and repeatability with a lot of up-time. Avery Dennison has proprietary operations, but has recently taken on custom work as well.

There?s also a big difference between European thermoforming machinery requirements and those of thermoformers in the U.S. Lars Ekendahl, president of Kiefel Technology, spoke on this topic as related to roll-fed thermoforming machines. ?Europe is not a common market when it comes to machinery,? Ekendahl notes. ?Each and every manufacturer is specialized for the region and customer demand with different machines for different applications, while the U.S. tends to run the same machinery.? Ekendahl adds that machinery equipment manufacturers need to increase the sizes of the equipment and increase the output to help thermoformers stay competitive. He also notes that European thermoformers tend to do more inmold trimming, while U.S. thermoformers do more trimming off-line.

Additionally, Ekendahl explains that the U.S. thermoforming industry trend is toward larger machines with higher cavitation tools because electricity consumption isn?t a big issue. Comparing utility rates, Europe?s costs are higher than those in the U.S. ?Europe has smaller machines, smaller tools, and shorter runs, so it doesn?t make sense to build a 120-cavity tool in Europe,? he states.

Speeds and Feeds

Usually you think of machining steel when you think of speed-and-feed rates, but it?s critical in the thermoforming industry as well. Sheet extrusion systems manufacturer Processing Technologies inc. (PTi; Aurora, IL) introduced its new and innovative sheet production machinery design at the Thermoforming Conference. It can be used for producing roll stock, cut sheet, and can be close-coupled to a thermoformer for inline processing. The Revolution Series Roll Stand offers many unique and innovative features including drive-shaft-driven rolls for precision roll operation and easy drive engagement and disengagement for quick-pattern roll changeovers common to custom sheet producers, and motorized vertical roll stand positioning for quick-and-easy vertical adjustments of the die to ?nip point? approach. Roll changeovers are said to take about an hour or less, including roll removal and re-assembly.

Pneumatic or hydraulic configurations are available for roll loads up to 800 lb. Precision-machined casters and tracks help maintain frame alignment throughout the life of the machine. It comes available in chrome roll geometries of 16-, 18-, 20- and 24-inch diameters with widths ranging from 30 through 70 inches with larger systems planned for the future.

Additionally, with PTi?s MAXTrude feedscrews it?s easy to process 100% recycled PET flake, as demonstrated in several of the company?s Trident Series extrusion systems including the Model 6000 (6-inch diameter), 36:1 L/D, 500-hp a-c extrusion system installed at Phoenix Technologies International LLC (Bowling Green, OH), one of the largest domestic manufacturers of recycled postconsumer PET. Phoenix operates a total of four PTi extrusion systems all similarly configured. Phoenix developed a proprietary process for converting standard RPEST bottle flake into patented direct-contact food-grade RPET pellets.

Dana Hanson, president of PTi, comments that ?the MAXTrude feedscrew operates at high capacities while providing lower motor loads and a reduced and controllable melt temperature along with delivering acceptable levels of mixing.? PTi developed this concept in its line of sheet production equipment over the past 24 months.

Robotics Play a Big Role

Chuck Russo, CEO of Robotic Production Technology (RPT; Auburn Hills, MI), notes that robotics on the thermoforming production floor are playing an increasing role in keeping the process competitive in terms of productivity and costs. ?We?re going for more parts, less labor, and less maintenance on the thermoforming production floor,? he comments. ?We need to compete to keep production in the U.S. and we?re working with Fanuc on their ?Save Your Factory? initiative, and to educate end users on factory automation.?

RPT demonstrated its robotic material handling systems and introduced its RoboTrim family of robotic router trimming solutions, along with its new robot simulation software for path-intensive robotic trimming called TrimPro.

RoboTrim will allow thermoformers to compete in a global market by increasing the number of parts run per house, thereby increasing productivity, Russo explains. ?Manufacturers can increase additional capacity and better utilize their capital investment. With one customer, we cut the cycle time in half with our robotic solution versus CNC.?

TrimPro software is a PC-based offline robot simulation software that allows users to simulate and program a robot in 3-D space. RPT jointly developed the product with Fanuc Robotics based on its SimPro software, and it provides a processor with the tools needed to simulate and optimize cycle times of actual work cells without the time and cost associated with a prototype setup or bringing a system down during production.

?With the competitive environment, manufacturers are constantly searching for ways to trim the time it takes to get a new system up and running,? says Russo. ?TrimPro allows customers to create a program offline while concurrently running production, and significantly cuts the amount of time needed to finalize a robot program while in production mode. It also reduces the amount of programming while in an engineering environment, rather than on the manufacturing floor.?

RPT?s new material handling robot provides thermoformers with a more flexible and reliable material handling solution, rather than using dedicated automation equipment with limited capabilities. Thermoformers can also save on labor costs if the process is currently handled by employees.

Six-axes robots can be pedestal-mounted, floor-mounted, or situated on a rack or a floor-mounted rail, offering good flexibility to a thermoformer. With the six axes, the robot can unload or load a machine, as well as perform secondary operations such as router trimming, deflashing, degating, trimming, assembly, packout, dispensing, and ultrasonic welding. RPT featured the R1000i robot to demonstrate a router trimming and material-handling cell, equipped with an auto-changer and quick disconnect.

With speed and efficiency the name of the game, GN Plastics (Chester, NS), makers of high-speed thermoforming equipment and tooling, promoted its line of equipment at the Thermoforming Conference. Jerome Romkey, marketing manager for GN, notes that the company will do a ?second launch? at K 2004 of its dual-mold-systems thermoforming machines that allows for greater efficiencies by forming on one side while cooling and cutting on the other side.

Heaters Play Critical Role

Heating technology is always a critical factor in thermoforming productivity, and Heraeus Noblelight Inc. (the U.S. arm of Heraeus Noblelight GmbH, Kleinoshteim, Germany), introduced its new CIR Carbon Infrared Emitter. Infrared emitters transmit large amounts of energy in a short time and at high efficiency for fast drying of water-based inks and lacquers, and economical processing of plastics. The twin-tube carbon emitters can be easily retrofitted into existing infrared systems, replacing the existing emitters, improving the system, and decreasing operating costs.

Carbon emitters have twice the maximum power density of conventional medium-wave twin tube emitters, according to the company. In addition, carbon emitters are said to have fast heat-up and cool-down times and can be switched on and off in seconds.

Heating methods continue to have their controversies, and Geiss Thermoforming USA (Elk Grove, IL; a subsidiary of Geiss Thermoforming, Germany), makes a full line of thermoforming systems including tooling, trimming, and prototyping using CAD design. Halogen heating is the newest technology for the company. Although halogen heating isn?t for every thermoforming application, particularly with screen-printed surfaces, Manfred Geiss, president of Geiss, notes that halogen technology has helped the company solve many problems associated with heating the sheet.Although halogen was first introduced in 1993, Geiss notes that the standard continues to be quartz. When Geiss first began using halogen, about 25% of machines utilized the system. Today, Geiss uses the halogen technology on about 85% of its machines. ?All machines sold and delivered in the U.S. have halogen heaters,? he says, attributing the reluctance to use halogen to a lack of education about the benefits of the technology.

MAAC Thermoforming Machinery (Carol Stream, IL) salesman Paul Alongi says that MAAC is making strides in the area of heating with a new software program that is time- and temperature-controllable, capable of speeding up the heat cycle by 30% at no additional cost. ?It?s providing faster cycles overall with the machine,? he states.

Brown Machine (Beaverton, MI) has focused some of its latest innovation in tooling with two new patents to help thermoformers achieve faster changeovers and greater productivity. In June, Brown received a U.S. patent for its quick-change tooling concept that allows rapid installation and removal of plug assists without the need for hand tools. The bayonet-style feature allows plug assists to be individually installed or removed with a simple hand twist, and locked into position. The concept can be incorporated into newly designed third platen and conventional thermoforming tools as well as retrofitted to many existing tools. The feature is currently running successfully in a number of multicavity tools producing a range of small and large, round and rectangular single-service food containers. It reportedly has significantly reduced changeover time.

?Trim presses used to take four hours to do changeovers, but with quick-change connections, canopy guide rods and servo feeds, a former can get a 45-minute product-to-product with a center line change,? says Jim Robbins, VP of marketing, noting that ?incremental tweaking? to its line of equipment is adding up to ?big changes? for Brown customers.

MAAC is also making changes to its equipment, such as new platen designs and twin-sync motors to eliminate chains and the high maintenance that comes with them. A single shaft, front and back, offers seamless starting and stopping, and more precise forming with less maintenance, says Paul Alongi.

At the conference, Quintax Div. of Ferry Industries (Stow, OH) featured a new PC-based control in XP platform for its line of three- and five-axes routers for accurate, high-speed trimming, cutting, and shaping applications. The control provides faster processing time with increased speeds.

Amros Industries Inc. (Cleveland, OH) is a custom thermoformer specializing in clamshell production and contract packaging that has developed new products for its own use, and is now making them available to other thermoformers. The company has patent-pending long-life, self-locating steel rule cutting dies and demonstrated a custom-developed Real Time Production Control software program at the conference.

Gregory Stheyngarts, president of Amros, says that the Real Time production monitoring system is still in the development stage and has three months of testing to go before its official release, but it will be a first for thermoforming plants. The steel rule cutting die is also patented by Amros. It has gone as long as 150,000 shots without becoming dull, and allows cutting to be done in line.

Adolf Illig GmbH Co. KG (Heilbronn, Germany) touted its newest thermoforming line at the conference. The type RDM 70K has a 24-up forming/punching tool for drinking cups with a punching diameter of 75 mm, and a speed of 40 cycles/min. The RDM 70K is the third generation machine for this application.

Speeds of this type have been achieved before, but not on this size equipment, says Stefan Deuschle, general manager for ILLIG L.P. (Cohasset, MA). ?These speeds are in a range you?d typically think of with injection molding,? he adds.

The RDM 70K produces drinking cups with thin walls and excellent material distribution, allowing for reduced material usage. It permits easy automated stacking and packaging equipment, eliminating many problems downstream. The stacking system with the extension kit for latch and cascade stacking was optimized for higher cycle speeds, and now single-row cup stack discharge on SZS 73 is possible.

Deuschle showed a cup sample from a 45-cavity tool running the cups in 40 mil PP. The system is capable of 100,000 cups/hr, complete with trim-in-place ?with tolerances you only dream about,? resulting in uniform cup quality across all cavities, notes Deuschle.

At the conference, Zed Industries Inc. (Vandalia, OH) introduced its SF Series high-speed, inline, servodriven pressure formers with punch-press type trimming. Mark Zelnick of Zed notes that customers ?love the speed and the smooth, harmonic motion. In one application for cups and lids?a high-volume application?the goal was 50 strokes/min and they hit 57 strokes/min. The guided chain system can accelerate 300 linear ft/second.?

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