China Bets Big on Automation

By: Tony Deligio 27. July 2016

With the full brunt of the Chinese government behind it, the country’s industrial robot inventory is forecast to explode 2500% from 70,000 in 2016 to 1.8 million by 2025.


Those figures courtesy the China Center for Information Industry Development and shared in a July 26 webinar from the Robotics Industry Association (RIA). The RIA had three China robotics experts outline the market’s opportunities and the explosive growth it could create for western suppliers of industrial automation.


The webinar followed a statement from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) detailing the same types of projections. In that report, Wang Ruixiang, president of the China Machinery Industry Federation (IFR), said he expects his country to join the top 10 nations in the world in terms of robot density—that is the number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees.


In 2015, that figure stood at 36 per 10,000, putting it at No. 28, well below the U.S. (152), Germany (282), Japan (323) and South Korea (437). With a stated goal of selling 100,000 domestically made industrial robots every year by 2020, the industry believes it can join the world’s leaders sooner rather than later.


Ruixiang’s comments came at the China International Summit of the Robot Industry, and they echo reports inside and outside China, from industry and government, on how robotics will help maintain the country’s status as the world’s factory. That factory will also make robots to be consumed in China and abroad. Currently, foreign robot manufacturers enjoy a 69% share of the Chinese automation market, but local players see a shift coming.


At a roundtable during the IFR’s most recent meeting in Münich, Daokui Qu, CEO of Chinese robot manufacturer Siasun, said that by 2020, he believes Chinese robot makers share of the domestic market would increase to 50%.


Regardless of where the robots are made, more and more of them are headed to Asia according to the IFR. In 2015, the region registered the highest sales figures for robots globally—156,000—up 16% from the year prior, with China taking up 43% of that total with 67,000, almost double the second biggest player, South Korea, with 37,000.


Opportunities for U.S. Automation Suppliers
During the RIA webinar, Nelson Lee, president of Sunels Tech & Capital Corp., noted that while there are 2600 domestic robotics and automation related companies in China, many are quite small, with 90% generating less than $16 million in sales. He also said they are forced to rely on imports of key components like reducers, servomotors and controllers.


Despite these challenges, Lee said the Chinese automation industry will continue to expand because of strong government support, including related policies. In fact, on March 21, the Chinese government issued a Robotic Industry Development Plan for 2016-2020, projecting that annual sales of industrial robots will reach 260,000 units by 2024, with the value of the industry to hit nearly $15 billion. To achieve these lofty goals, the domestic industry has sought to partner with western leaders—one example: Chinese firm Midea Group’s pursuit of global leader Kuka.


Economic Slowdown ≠ Robotic Slowdown
In the Q&A portion of the webinar, one questioner noted China’s relative slowdown economically and asked whether or not that would impact the burgeoning automation industry. For Lee, the retraction is actually a positive harbinger.


“China is now making its economy more efficient; getting out of low quality, low efficiency industries and focusing more on advanced manufacturing industries,” Lee said. “This policy basically helps the development of the robotic industry because robotics are so advanced. So even though China is slowing down, the government and companies are putting more effort into robotics.”


While many segments of the economy might elicit a tepid response in conversation, automation does not.


“Whenever we are in China—when we talk with officials and companies—once you mention robotics or robots, they get excited; they want to sit down and talk with you,” Lee said.


Those statements definitely reflect Plastics Technology’s own reporting on the pursuit of advanced manufacturing in the Middle Kingdom, here and here. (Pictured: attendees at Chinaplas 2015 in Guangzhou get up close and personal with automation).


Novel, Vivid, and Durable Blue Pigment Could Soon Debut

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 27. July 2016

First new blue pigment in two centuries created accidentally in a university lab.


Shepherd Color has partnered with Oregon State U. chemists to bring the new blue to the market. Stumbled upon by materials science professor Mas Subramanian and his students at Oregon State University back in 2009, the pigment came about while they tested the electronic properties of chemical compounds. The team named the new vivid blue YinMin, after the elements from which it is composed—yttrium, indium and manganese.


Now, through an exclusive partnership with Shepherd Color Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, the new blue is on the way to commercialization. It is making its debut in paint, but its use in plastics is surely to follow.


With roots dating back to the 1920s ceramics industry, the family-owned company has been offering a full range of complex inorganic color pigments for the premium coatings and plastics markets since the early 1960s.


According to the company, the new blue’s beauty extends past the visible spectrum into the near infrared spectrum. As such, it allows for the formulation of darker shades that stay cooler than standard blues. It is for this reason that scientists are exploring its use on the development of an energy-saving roofing material, as this compound has water and UV resistance that outperforms other blues, including the last one created, cobalt blue.


Shepherd Color is completing its production scale-up and is aiming to obtain regulatory compliance from the EPA for this new pigment chemistry, for which it does not anticipate any obstacles. The company states that approvals to gain commercialization for new material chemistries are fastidious and well-controlled.


“Care and attention to the safe handling and processing of the materials used in manufacture to the final product as well as regulatory compliance, environmental impacts and even perspectives from global chemical inventories need to be taken into consideration.” Such inventories are used to manage the safe use of materials within different regions and countries; TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) is the relevant inventory in the U.S.


Shepherd Color provided limited samples to specific industrial users for R&D and market evaluation purposes. The company’s filing for commercialization approvals with the EPA was bolstered by the very encouraging feedback it received. While the company is not certain of the timeframe for full commercialization, it has noted that because the materials used in the manufacture of the new pigment are expensive prices are expected to be $1000/kg ($454/lb) plus shipping.


Meanwhile, Artnet Worlwide Corp.’s art market website has reported that the brilliantly bright and durable YinMin has been entered in a Harvard Art Museum pigment collection that preserves the “world history of color”. Artists are calling the new blue “Más Blue” (más in Spanish means “more” and also happens to be professor’s Subramanian’s first name.)


For more on Shepherd Color and pigments for plastics, see PT’s additives database.


A Discussion on the Value of Materials Testing

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 26. July 2016

The top three reasons processors should consider materials testing.


I found this brief discussion on how plastics processors can benefit from materials testing, offered to us by Americhem, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, extremely interesting. The company, a longtime global masterbatch and additives manufacturer, also made its entry into the plastics compounding business with three important acquisitions over the last four years.


The discussion features two of the company’s key research analytical scientists addressing why many processors are missing out by overlooking the value-added services from their material suppliers.


Pavan Maheswaram and Russ Howard, provide the brainpower behind Americhem’s Analytical and Physical Testing value-engineering services. Their key job: analyze raw materials and their customers’ products to assess quality and provide technical services.


“We spend most of our time developing, improving and implementing analytical testing methods, formulations and manufacturing processes,” says Maheswaram. Adds Howard, “There is a number of reasons we run tests, but we are ultimately providing technical data that customers and other Americhem experts can use to design, improve or otherwise engineer products.”


Their jobs entail doing testing for just about every business unit in the company. “We work with producers of residential and industrial carpets, vehicles and transportation equipment, architectural products, packaging, and specialty products—like nonwovens in dryer sheets. There is plenty of value to be found in taking a closer looks at the composition of your product, regardless of what that may be,” says Howard.


According to Maheswaram, the top three reasons for doing testing are:


Providing customers with documentation to serve as proof of a product’s composition or performance properties;

Troubleshooting—looking for problems or causes of problems with products or processes;

Assessing quality of certain types of products after they’ve been manufactured.


These pros conduct a broad spectrum of tests. With regards to analytical testing, says Maheswaram, thermal analysis is a core competency—whereby they look at how properties of materials change as temperature increases or decreases.


They also do a lot of spectroscopy work—seeing how light reacts with materials, when analyzing a masterbatch, as well as some microscopy when looking at particle sizes, for example. Adds Howard, “We are also focusing more on chromatography lately—separating mixtures to look at proportions of different ingredients to make sure ratios are right or to look for contamination that may have occurred during processing.”


How Long Does Testing Take?
It depends on the application and type of testing, according to these experts. They say the process could range from a few hours to perform some qualitative tests, with other tests taking much longer; generally, tests rarely take more than two weeks to perform, and almost never more than a month.


Greater Interest in Chromatography
A trend they are seeing, according to Maheswaram, is an increased interest in chromatography, as people want to better quantify and analyze the composition of various compounds. “We are also seeing interest in elemental testing super-microscopy, which requires very specialized equipment to carry out.”


Testing Challenges
Asked about testing challenges of which plastics processors should be aware, these pros say it’s important to know that testing methodologies are often proprietary. Says Howard, “If a company doesn’t have knowledge internally about how to conduct certain testing, it can be difficult to look up externally sometimes. You have to develop the tests yourself sometimes, so it isn’t as if someone can just decide one day they are going to conduct a new type of test.”


According to Maheswaram, not everyone has the same expertise. “It takes a lot of time, effort and money to establish certain testing capabilities, which is why we have people all over the world sending things to Americhem’s headquarters for testing.”


Don’t Miss Out
Asked what is the key takeaway from this discussion, Maheswaram advises not to overlook the value of testing—particularly if it is a service an “industry partner” provides at minimal cost.


“There is a lot you can learn from testing that can influence the way you design or improve your products, and you are missing out if you don’t take advantage.” Howard adds that processors should stay in touch with their material suppliers. “We are always looking for ways to expand our capabilities as we work with customers to overcome challenges, so don’t assume you know the full extent of a lab’s testing abilities. They might have changed since the last time you checked.”


For more on Americhem additives and compounds, see PT’s additives and materials database.


Car Parts Made From Agave?

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 25. July 2016


Ford and Jose Cuervo explore development of sustainable bioplastic.


As a company that has long considered itself a leader in biomaterials development for the automotive sector, it was not surprising to hear that Ford Motor, Dearborn, Mich., teamed up with tequila giant Jose Cuervo, to develop a sustainable bioplastic using the fiber byproduct of agave plants.


The Plastics Research Group, part of Ford’s Research & Innovation Center, has been developing bioplastics for over a decade, starting in 2000. In fact, Ford now uses eight sustainable-based materials in its vehicles including soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber, and rice hulls.


Now, researchers are testing the developmental bioplastic, for which initial assessments indicate to be very promising due to its durability and aesthetic qualities.  Its use in vehicle interior and exterior components such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units, and storage bins is being explored. Said Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability research department, “As a leader in the sustainability space, we are developing new technologies to efficiently employ discarded materials and fibers, while potentially reducing the use of petrochemicals and light-weighting our vehicles for desired fuel efficiency.”


The growth cycle of the agave plant is a minimum seven-year process. Once harvested, the heart of the plant is roasted, before grinding and extracting its juices for distillation. Jose Cuervo uses a portion of the remaining agave fibers as compost for its farms, and local artisans make crafts and agave paper from the remnants.


Teaming up with Ford is part of the tequila maker’s broader sustainability plan to develop a new way to use its remnant fibers. Said Sonia Espinola, director of heritage for Cuervo Foundation and master tequilera, “As the world’s No.1-selling tequila, we could never have imagined the hundreds of agave plants we were cultivating as a small family business would eventually multiply to millions. This collaboration brings two great companies together to develop innovative, earth-conscious materials.”


Noting that a typical car has about 400 pounds of plastic, Ford’s Mielewski added, “Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet. It is work I’m really proud of, and it could have a broad impact across numerous industries.”


According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 5-billion metric tons (over 11-trillion lbs) of agricultural biomass waste is produced each year. A byproduct of agriculture, the supply of materials is abundant and often underutilized. Yet the materials can be relatively low cost, and can help manufacturers to offset the use of glass fibers and talc for more sustainable, lightweight products.


For more on bioplastics, see PT’s Materials Database.


K 2016: Are We Seeing Something New Here?

By: Matthew H. Naitove 21. July 2016

I’ve been to a lot of trade shows, believe me. After a while, you think you know pretty much what to expect of them. But every now and then, I leave a show with a feeling that I saw something new happening there.


I remember shows in the Seventies when the microprocessor revolutionized plastics machine controls. There was one in the mid-Eighties when I scratched my head at the sudden explosion of robots everywhere. And some of you may have felt like that at shows in the early Nineties: Where did all those electric injection machines come from?


This October’s K 2016 show gives hints of possibly being one of those. Maybe it will be the next NPE or K after this one that confirms those hints. I don’t want to overstate the impact of a phenomenon that, so far, seems to have gained more traction in Europe than here. I’m talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” or “Industry 4.0,” or the “Internet of Things” (IoT).


I find the term, “Smart Factory,” a bit more descriptive of the concept—self-regulating production systems in which smart machines talk to each other and to plant supervisory computers and to maintenance departments, spare-parts databases, and, when necessary, to service departments of machine vendors to diagnose problems.


This has been a low-level buzz in the background of major international shows for a little while now; only a few machine builders made it part of their public agenda. But this K Show is different: Most of the major names in injection presses will be talking about it and how they are preparing for what they foresee as a coming upheaval in manufacturing. They have differing names for it, so keep your ears and eyes open for the “4.0” designation and for the OPC UA open-platform, “universal” communications protocol that will make it possible.


Two Close Up news articles in our upcoming August issue touch on the “4.0” phenomenon and OPC UA. There will be more in our September K Show news preview. (You can also read last September’s feature article on the topic.) Please don’t accuse me of falling head over heels for the latest European fad. I’m just trying to do my job of sniffing out the “next wave” before it washes over us. I could be wrong, but I think the surf’s starting to kick up.


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