The Shopfloor Revolution Will Be Automated

7. September 2016


How did North American robotics orders follow up 2015’s record first half over the first six months of 2016? With another record.


Actually, the records go all the way back to 2010, according to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3: Ann Arbor, Mich.), which released figures for its member groups—the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA - Advancing Vision + Imaging, and Motion Control & Motor Association (MCMA)—in late August (images courtesy Wittmann Battenfeld).


A3’s reporting members sell into markets outside of plastics, including food processing and automotive (think welding), but conversations with plastics-specific suppliers of automation and robotics also revealed an extremely strong performance in the first two quarters of 2016.


“Basically, everyone I see is looking to automate,” Tom Schaffner, national sales manager for Wittmann Battenfeld’s robotics division told Plastics Technology. “Literally everyone we talk to; they’re either doing it themselves, or they’re asking us to provide a quote and do it for them. We can’t seem to quote enough automation.” Unable to reveal specific figures, Schaffner estimated that the automation/robotics segment at his company is growing anywhere from 10% to 20% per year.


Jim Healy, vice president, sales and marketing, for Sepro America, saw the same year-over-year growth for Sepro as reported by A3. “In the first half, each month’s sales were up compared to the same month in 2015,” Healy said. “July was down somewhat, but activity rebounded in August, and sales were again up compared to 2015. Globally, I understand, the July/August period was among the best in Sepro’s history.”


At the K 2016 press preview held in Dusseldorf at the end of June, Jean-Michel Renaudeau, CEO of Sepro Group, announced that the company is on track for its fourth record sales year in a row, projecting global turnover to exceed €100 million for the first time and that unit sales (robots and sprue pickers) would surpass 2500. Sepro notes this was a conservative estimate, based only on the previous 5 months of sales activity, but it still represents an almost 8% increase over 2015.


Engel, the Schwertberg, Austria based maker of injection molding machines and robot systems via its Viper line, declined to separate out specific automation sales but did says its market share of robot deliveries in North America grew from 20% to 23% in the first half of 2016. The company noted that it has established its own automation center at its regional headquarters in York, Penn. At this time, there are currently 11 automation experts in York that collaborate with the Engel Automation divisions in Austria and Germany, with plans to add more staff in the future.


Headcount expansions have taken place or are coming at Sepro and Wittmann Battenfeld as well. “We’re constantly adding more people,” Schaffner said. “We just added a couple more engineers, and we’re hiring more.” Schaffner said recent hires have included application engineers for quoting, a project manager, and a controls integrator, among others. “The automation department, alone, never mind standard robots, certainly is growing,” Schaffner said.


Sepro noted that an important element in to its North American unit’s recent success is the expansion of its sales network. In 2013, Sepro added dedicated regional managers to handle states in the western U.S. and New England, and it hired a third regional manager in the Southeast in 2015. Earlier this year, Sepro created a new daughter company in Canada.


Another Record Performance
A3 reported that a total of 14,583 robots valued at approximately $817 million were ordered from North American companies during the first half of 2016. That unit figure marks a new record to begin the year—up 2% over the same period in 2015—which held the previous record.


Order revenue, however, decreased slightly (down 3%) in the first half of 2016. Over the first six months of 2015, actual shipments came in at 13,620 robots valued at $838 million to North American customers. In terms of units, those shipments are the second highest total ever, while the shipment revenue figure shipped reflected another new record for the first half of a year.


Automotive OEMs and their component suppliers saw their orders increase 16% and four percent respectively to begin the year, and were the largest driver of the market’s record performance. First half orders for the food and consumer goods industry were up 41% over the same period in 2015, while total orders to all other non-automotive industries decreased 14%.


By application, the biggest increases were realized in inspection (69%), assembly (38%), and spot welding (21%). RIA estimates that some 265,000 robots are now in use at North American factories, which is third to only Japan and China.


Plastics Outlook
At Sepro, Healy noted that on a regional basis, the Southeast has been very busy, with sales there more than quadrupling over 2015. The Pacific Coast is also enjoying “a good year”, with Mexico very active as well. Automotive, which traditionally has been a strong market for Sepro, is going strong again this year. “We’re seeing a lot of orders coming out of the Ohio/Michigan territory for robots that we will deliver to the Southeastern U.S. and also Mexico,” Healy said. “Mexico has been very active, with orders coming through both Sepro America and Sepro Mexico.” The latter is Sepro’s Mexican subsidiary based in Queretaro.


At Wittmann Battenfeld, Schaffner says the company’s growth has been across a variety of markets, naming off specific projects ranging from flat dinner plates and Chinese food containers, to medical devices and automotive. “Years ago, robots were more about trying to justify labor—‘How do we cut out labor?’” Schaffner said. “Now all we hear is, ‘How do we automate?’ It’s not necessarily about labor; it’s about consistency.”


This is not the first time we’ve discussed automation in the blog, read about how China is hoping it can keep it in the manufacturing lead despite a labor shortage using robots, with more reporting on previous record-setting years and collaborative robots as a means to keep humans from having to work on the tedious and/or the unsafe.


Single-Serve Beverage Capsules Market Trends

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 6. September 2016


AMI’s newest industry report discusses timeline of brand compatible coffee capsules and trends.


That the coffee capsules market is here to stay is a given but the transformation of the market with competitive brand compatibles emerging is in full swing as noted by an authoritative comprehensive “deep-dive” analytic report of the global Single Serve Beverage Capsules (aka coffee capsules) industry. Released just last month by Bristol, U.K.-based AMI Consulting in cooperation with Plastic Technologies, Inc., Holland, Ohio. Here are the key points and issues addressed:


• No longer a niche market, the capsules industry has developed into a complex value chain over the years. Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, this segment represented a classic example of an oligopoly—limited to a couple of Italy-centered systems for traditional espresso brewing, (e.g. Lavazza Espresso Point).


• Relatively recently (2000s), as the capsules format became more popularized, brands such as Dolce Gusto (by Nestle), Tassimo (by Kraft, now Jacobs Douwe Egberts) and A Modo Mio (by Lavazza) found their successful, high-margin niches on the market.


• The year 2012 heralded the start of a dramatic market transformation, driven by the change of legal circumstances; the expiration of Nespresso and Keurig design patents, which brought about disruptive changes in the supply chain, creating new opportunities for both end-users and converters to tap into the growing market segment. Notwithstanding some legal battles, these circumstances triggered the development of Nespresso-compatible brands and own label products that could now rely on the Nespresso machines installment base, but offer a more competitive retail price for the capsules. Barriers to enter the capsules segment became lower (both from filling and molding perspectives).


• On the other hand, the supply chain of capsules is rapidly losing its oligopolistic nature and the former dominance of major suppliers has been challenged as the market is expanding. A more fragmented supply chain affects the overall profit pool and the way consumers make their choices. Needless to say, that transformation had an adverse effect on the premium image of the segment: the average price was lowered and the quality of some capsules available on the market poorer (based on OTR and performance in brewing machines). The potential machine malfunction (or misuse) in correlation with compatibles introduced some operational challenges for Nestle and its machine partners having to do with machine servicing (i.e. increased service costs).


• The AMI consultants estimate that all plastic compatible capsules (across all systems) accounts for 22% of the Single Serve Beverage Capsules market worldwide by unit volume. The Nespresso system is the world’s largest selling, with volume of about 17 billion units—that included both aluminum capsules and plastic Nespresso compatibles.


• The development of new compatible offerings is now in favor of the Nescafe Dolce Gusto system (another Nestle brand). The market penetration of Dolce Gusto compatibles is still low at the moment, but it is expected to strongly grow in the comping years. 


Slideshow: Taipei Plas 2016

By: Tony Deligio 31. August 2016

Held August 12-16 at Taipei's Nangang Exhibition Center, Taipei Plas 2016 logged a record number of overseas exhibitors. Check out the highlights in this slideshow (pictured: the long dusk shadow cast by Taipei's Taipei 101 tower).

Slideshow: Taipei Plas 2016


Treofan Simplifies Laminate Structure; Boosts Sealing Performance of BOPP Films

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 31. August 2016

ExxonMobil’s Vistamaxx featured in new five-layer BOPP Film.


Metallocene PE (mPE) elastomers, whether they serve as a component of multilayer film and/or sheet structures, or as an additive that boosts the performance of molded parts are by now recognized as one of the major plastic material technologies to emerge within the last two decades.


A report released earlier this year noted that North America has accounted for the largest share of the global mPE market and will continue in the lead through 2020, due to increasing demand from various end-use industries such as packaging, electronics, and pharmaceuticals.


The report also identified the film segment as the leading application, driven primarily by the continued growth of the packaging industry, followed by the sheet segment, which is driven by end-use applications such as lamination, thermoforming, and machining.


Prominent players in the mPE market are: Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil Chemical, Chevron Phillips Chemical, LyondellBasell Industries and Total Petrochemicals. Just recently, we reported on SABIC’s entry into this business.


One thing that’s clear to this editor is that most of the innovation that continues to emerge comes from savvy plastics processors in collaboration with the material suppliers and brand owners. This is particularly evident in the food packaging industry, which continues to evolve as such partners look to produce better, more efficient, more economical packaging that also manages to be more sustainable and attractive.


Here is a look at a recent example. Global BOPP film producer Treofan, Raunheim, Germany (U.S. office in Winston-Salem, N.C.) has developed a new five-layer BOPP film which features Vistamaxx metallocene-catalyzed olefinic TPEs from ExxonMobil Chemical, resulting in a simplified laminate structure with excellent sealing performance.


Treofan’s aim was to develop a BOPP film for the packaging of instant soups, but one that would also serve well for other kinds of dehydrated powdered products such as spice blends or instant sauces. Current laminates for soup pouches are typically comprised of a 7-9 µm aluminum foil and a sealant, made of PE, with a thickness of 10-30 µm. The PE sealant is either a blown film, adhesive laminated to aluminum foil or directly extrusion coated on the aluminum foil.


The company developed the new Treofan MSB 30, a metallized BOPP film using Vistamaxx in the heat-sealable side, replacing the aluminum foil and PE sealant; it allows the number of laminate components to be reduced from three to two layers. According to Treofan, many brand owners prefer printed paper on the outside of the soup pouch. Instead of printed paper, a reverse-printed BOPP film or a printed PET film can be applied to an MSB 30 produced pouch, offering full product design latitude.


According to ExxonMobil, market reference laminates offer a minimum seal strength of 5N/15 mm, which cannot be achieved with a standard BOPP film as the sealant. Treofan MSB 30-based laminate, however, offers a seal strength of about 8N/15 mm and even higher if desired. Seal integrity (hermeticity) reportedly is also enhanced. SKYE tests indicate a much higher overpressure versus a standard BOPP film. According to Treofan, several brand owners and converters have been running samples of MSB 30 recently. “Application tests of our film usually takes 6-12 months,” said Detlef Hutt, innovation engineer at Treofan. 


Panel of Pros to Discuss Automotive Design Trends at GPS 2016

By: Lilli Manolis Sherman 30. August 2016

Analysts, industry leaders and plastics manufacturers will address expanding use of plastics and composites at this year’s IHS Markit and SPI event.


At the upcoming (Sept. 28-30, in Chicago), GPS 2016: The Global Plastics Summit, hosted by IHS Markit and SPI, attendees will be treated to a panel of industry pros that will address the expanding use of plastics and composites in automotive design. (Last month, Denver-based IHS merged with England’s Markit Ltd. into a global information giant, IHS Markit, headquartered in London.)


Chemical researchers at IHS Markit report that by 2020, the average car will incorporate nearly 350 kilograms (771.63 lbs) of plastics, up from 200 kilograms (440.92 lbs) in 2014. This is driven by increasingly stringent government regulations to meet fuel efficiency standards and reduce carbon emissions.


In the U.S., for example, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards mandate that carmarkers’ passenger vehicle fleets average 54.5 miles/gal by 2025, and according to IHS Markit estimates, fuel economy must be improved by approximately 50% across the passenger vehicle fleet. This is resulting in the increasing use by automakers of newer-generations plastics and plastics composites.


For the most part, mainstream automakers are initially employing traditional metalworking approaches to weight reduction, as these offer a cost-effective application of known competencies, secure supply chains and more importantly, existing capital equipment. However, automakers are increasingly employing more novel approaches, such as adopting plastics and next-generation composites into automotive design, particularly for larger vehicle applications, according to IHS Markit.


Said Casey Selecman, senior manager of automotive advisory services at IHS Markit, “While metal and metal alloys are still critical to automotive design, automakers are finding innovative ways to leverage plastics and composites into their designs to help reduce vehicle weight and improve efficiency. As efficiency and carbon reduction regulations increase globally, we at IHS Markit expect the use of plastics will only increase as the materials improve and production costs are reduced.”  He also noted that the use of advanced plastics and composites also give automotive designers a freedom of expression that would be impossible with conventional metals, such as steel or aluminum. “Beyond the practical advantages of using plastics and composites, these materials can enhance the design and aesthetic appeal of cars, and while performance, structural strength and safety are key purchase considerations, buyers also look for designs that appeal to the head and the heart.”


The company’s automotive researchers note that cars represent a fast-growing market for the chemicals industry, with global car production expected to rise in the coming years to more than 110 million units in 2025, up from an estimated 88.7 million in 2015. Much of the growth is expected to come from the fast-expanding Chinese market.


Uses for advanced plastics and plastic composites now range from electronic components, through to body panels, lift-gates, seatbacks, center consoles, interior trim, and underhood applications. These materials are often compounded with fiberglass and additives to boost mechanical properties and stability.  According to IHS Markit the use of carbon fibers and polymer matrix composites are enabling car-body weight-reductions of an estimated 25% to 70%, and company chemical analysts expect the market for carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing to nearly double in the next few years.


Said Selecman, “There is still huge opportunity for automotive light-weighting on the horizon—literally tons of weight yet to be removed from vehicle designs using material substitutions such as innovative plastics composites and carbon fiber technologies. Closures, which are doors, lift-gates and hoods, are the easiest options to significantly reduce vehicle weight, and at IHS Markit, we see significant opportunities for those as well as non-critical structures such as seats, instrument panels, and under the hood for engine cradles, pans, covers, and so on.”


The company expects usage of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing to nearly double from 2015 to 2020, according to Michael Malveda, lead author of the newly published report from IHS Markit, IHS Chemical Carbon Fibers, Chemical Economics Handbook.  “We expect the use of carbon fiber composites in mainstream cars and trucks to increase, but improvements will need to be made in carbon fiber processing technology to make it more cost-effective for mass-produced automobiles.”


Selecman, along with other IHS analysts and industry leaders and plastics manufactures, including Brian Baleno, global automotive business development manager for Solvay Specialty Chemicals, will participate in this key panel discussion.


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