Decreased costs, improved part quality and consistency, and winning work back from overseas. Those are among the benefits Port Erie Plastics has realized as a result of its bear-like embrace of automation.
Based in Harborcreek, Pa., Port Erie is a third-generation, family-owned custom molder celebrating its 60th year. From 575,000 ft² of manufacturing and warehousing, Port Erie runs a gamut of products serving a range of industries, but considers building and construction and consumer products to be its bread and butter. The company operates 90 injection presses from 55 to 1500 tons. It also operates two 500-ton structural-foam machines, two blow molding machines with dual 15-lb heads, and eight extrusion lines devoted to crosslinked polyethylene (PEX) pipe. (Port Erie also molds PEX fittings.) The company’s annual sales are north of $50 million.
But it’s an unwavering commitment to automation that separates Port Erie from most others in the field. Of Port Erie’s 90 injection machines, 48 are equipped with robotics, 40 of them supplied by Wittmann Battenfeld. The molder’s goal is to have robots on 65-70% of its presses in the coming years. “Unless it’s a job where the part lends itself to drop-and-convey, we’re going to automate,” says Phil Witkowski, Port Erie’s automation engineer and part of the company’s ownership group.
Port Erie bought its first five Wittmann robots in 2000. “Fourteen years and 40 robots later, we’ve worked with them for all kinds of molding jobs, from very small to very large parts,” states Witkowski. “In each case, the cost savings for our company have been phenomenal.”
In one particular application, recalls manufacturing manager Joe Deutsch, the company was running identical parts on three presses equipped with six-cavity, subgated molds. Each machine was tended by two operators. After equipping the presses with robots, Port Erie was able to run the three machines with one operator while each robot removed the parts, cut the subgates into a grinder, and then stacked the parts 20 high on a conveyor within the 11-sec cycle time. That freed up the operators for tasks such as assembly, decorating, and inspection.
The newest Wittmann robots at Port Erie are described by the staff as intuitive to program and set up. They include easily adjustable settings to adapt to new applications, allowing the technicians to reprogram them in-house and customize their usage as needed.
Among the newest robots at Port Erie is Wittmann’s W821 servo unit. Port Erie uses it on a press molding clear lids from styrenic copolymer. This robot is equipped with Wittmann’s Smart Removal technology. Smart Removal is a control function that determines the shortest part-removal time through acceleration of the vertical arm during the mold’s opening stroke. On the lid job, Smart Removal cut mold-open time from 2.87 sec to 1.67 sec, resulting in over 40% increased productivity. This improved cycle time will allow the robot to pay for itself in just 12 months.
Automation is also helping Port Erie to win work back from China because of more competitive pricing, higher quality, and faster turnaround on projects, notes Jon Connole, the molder’s sales and marketing manager. “We have at least two jobs here now that we didn’t have a few months ago, that came to us from China,” he says.