Add Dirt to Your Resin?

By: Matthew H. Naitove 20. July 2016

No, it’s not recommended, but some people do it anyway—inadvertently, through carelessness or lack of training.


I was reminded of this in reading John Bozzelli’s Injection Molding Know-How column in our upcoming August issue (read it here). John’s column is entitled, “Purging: A to Z”, and he makes the valid point that getting all the flow paths in your injection system clean so a new color or material can be introduced without contamination is a job that starts with material handling. It’s a more expansive view of purging than most people have heard before. His point is to prevent contamination throughout the system, all the way back to unloading the truck or railcar.


Thinking about that put me in mind of a lament I heard long ago from a technical-service veteran at a major polyolefin supplier: “We take elaborate procedures to guarantee the quality, consistency, and cleanliness of our materials. But we get service calls from molders who say dirt in our resin clogged up their molds or hot runners. When we investigate how they handle material at their plant, we sometimes find the culprit in the hose and coupling they use to unload a railcar or bulk truck. Believe it or not, at some point before or after unloading, untrained workers let the hose and coupling drop into the dirt. There’s your contamination.”


Engel’s Liquid-Metal Technology Could Be a Hit

By: Matthew H. Naitove 14. July 2016

A technology leader in plastics, the Austrian firm’s collaboration with innovative metal molding firm Liquidmetal is drawing “overwhelming interest.”


At a recent press conference reviewing business trends in 2016, Dr. Peter Neumann, CEO of Engel Austria (U.S. office in York, Pa.) noted the “overwhelming interest” in its new Liquidmetal injection molding technology at the Hannover Fair in Germany in April. This technology utilizes amorphous zirconium alloys developed by Liquidmetal Technologies, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Engel, as its exclusive machinery partner, developed a special 180-ton press modified from its e-motion all-electric platform (see Aug. ’15 Close Up for details).


Engel executives said the market interest is coming especially from medical and consumer electronics that require molding of “very precise, thin, detailed, sophisticated” parts. They noted the good corrosion resistance of the material as one advantage. Other benefits are said to include a unique combination of hardness and elasticity, as well as relatively low specific weight. Engel sources see it as an alternative to powder injection molding (PIM), though they caution that it is aimed at “premium markets” and is a “niche of a niche.” For it to move ahead, they see a need to identify suitable moldmakers.


China’s Appetite for Advanced Molding Technology

By: Matthew H. Naitove 13. July 2016

Do automation and advanced molding technologies still offer U.S. molders safe harbor against low-cost competition?


At its recent pre-K press conference at its headquarters in Schwertberg, Austria, Engel (U.S. office in York, Pa.) reviewed its business outlook as well as its new technology to be presented at the K 2016 fair in Dusseldorf this October (see Close Up story in August).


In reviewing the machinery business, Engel CEO Dr. Peter Neumann made some interesting, and possibly unsettling, observations about technology trends in China. I say “unsettling,” because they challenge assumptions that automation and advanced technology offer U.S. molders safe harbors against competition from low-cost manufacturers in China and elsewhere in Asia.


For one thing, Neumann said his company sees rising demand for automated molding systems and integrated technologies in China. Why is there such a demand in a region notorious for its low labor costs? Although labor costs are rising in China, Neumann said the main reason is the increasing emphasis on high quality in Chinese manufacturing. Automation is rightfully seen as the key to maintaining stable processes and consistent quality.


Second, Neumann said China is active on one of the forefronts of integrated molding automation, known as “Industry 4.0.” This generally refers to a trend for machines to gain intelligence and self-awareness of their own condition and productivity and the ability to communicate their status to other machines and operators. (See our Sept. ’15 feature on the subject.)


I myself have seen more enthusiasm for Industry 4.0 among European machinery OEMs than here in the U.S. So I was surprised to hear Neumann say that the second most active country in the world for developing Industry 4.0 is, you guessed it, China. Again, the reason is probably the Chinese national focus on boosting its reputation for quality in manufacturing.


Third, Engel executives indicated that one of the new, emerging areas of molding technology—high-strength, lightweight composites—is not the exclusive preserve of European, North American, and Japanese molders—at least not for long.


“Similar to Europe, research institutes and material producers in Asia are pushing ahead with innovative composite technologies,” said Dr. Stefan Engleder, chief technical officer. He referred specifically to Korea, and he added that lightweight design is not only a major innovation for automotive manufacturing. The consumer electronics industry is also closely investigating composite materials in order to make their products lighter and thinner. “Thermoplastic fabrics, will, for example, replace magnesium frames in laptops,” Engleder said.


Incidentally, Neumann will be retiring from Engel after the K Show (his 10th at the company), and Engleder will assume the role of CEO.


Reunion Party Celebrates World’s First Thermoformer

By: Matthew H. Naitove 18. May 2016

In one room, several centuries of experience at the granddaddy of all thermoformers.


It’s not every day that a reporter gets invited to someone else’s family reunion. In this case, the “family” was about 50 former employees of Plastofilm Industries, reputed to be the world’s first thermoforming company—perhaps even the inventor of the process—and by far the largest in its time, if not still today.

The gathering, held at the Herrington Inn & Spa in Geneva, Ill., in April, was planned over two years by an informal committee of six Plastofilm “alumni,” but the driving force was Tony Beyer, who started there as a toolmaker in 1973 and worked his way up to plant manager before he left in 1991 to start his own thermoforming company, Tek Pak, in Batavia, Ill. The attendees included fathers and sons, husbands and wives, who had worked together at Plastofilm before its demise in 2008. Together, they represented several centuries of thermoforming experience, which later seeded a score of other thermoforming machinery, tooling, and processing companies, some of them founded by the Plastofilm extended family.


Plastofilm was started in 1941 by George Wiss (pictured below), an engineer who emigrated from Hungary in 1939. He started out with a contract from the U.S. Army to wash out and recover the silver oxide from sheets of photographic film of bombing missions during World War II. He was left with a pile of clear cellulose acetate butyrate sheets to discard and wondered if they could be reused in some way. That reportedly led to the invention of the first vacuum forming machine and process (Wiss was co-author of a patent). The first application was boxes to hold corsages for big bands like Glenn Miller’s that played on Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Based in Wheaton, Ill., Plastofilm started up its first thermoforming production line in 1957 and then the first high-speed, inline continuous forming machine (reputedly another original invention) in 1959. Plastofilm started its own sheet extrusion in 1966. By 1996, the firm had grown to five plants on three continents, 550 employees, and $280 million in annual revenue. Two of its biggest “firsts” were pioneering medical thermoforming in the 1960s and continuous forming of carrier tapes for automated assembly of electronics in 1981. But after Wiss retired, the firm was sold and resold to a succession of buyers, until its business dwindled away and the remaining equipment was sold off—much of it to Tek Pak.


The theme of the party was “Getting the band back together,” enlivened by the beat of The Blues Brothers Revue. The choice of bandwas not accidental: As Beyer explained it, John Belushi (one of the original Blues Brothers musical duo with Dan Akroyd) was a native of Wheaton, Ill., and worked at Plastofilm briefly one summer, because his mother was employed there.


There were other intriguing details to be learned at the party. For example, Beyer worked as a toolmaker on packaging trays for early products from Apple Computer. One of Plastofilm’s salesmen worked together with Apple founder Steve Jobs on those projects. Another Plastofilm salesman worked with Bill Gates on thermoformed packaging when Microsoft had fewer than 50 people, Beyer recalled at the reunion party. “Lots of neat stories from those Plastofilm days,” he said.


For more on the Plastofilm reunion, look for my Close Up article in the June issue of Plastics Technology.

Machine Guards Get in Your Way?

By: Matthew H. Naitove 10. May 2016


Easier access to the point where a robot deposits parts on a conveyor—that’s what Carl Morris, president and founder of Itech in Arden, N.C., is looking for.


At his new plant expansion at the Itech South facility in Westminster, S.C., he will replace “hard” metal-screen guarding around the robot drop point with vision cameras that will detect when a human enters the safety zone and halt the robot. That way, there’s no delay to open up the guarding if an operator or technician needs to get to that location. This is just one element of his plans for increased automation at Itech and Itech South.


For more on the latest doings at Itech South, see my On-Site feature in the upcoming June issue.

Carl Morris, Itech, Arden, N.C.

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