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.

Rethinking the Injection Screw: Is It a Trend?

By: Matthew H. Naitove 4. May 2016

Renowned screw designer Robert F. Dray wrote to me recently, lamenting that injection molding screw design has not received the kind of attention that the extrusion industry has paid to perfecting this fundamental processing component.


“It is unfortunate that the injection molding industry has not placed the emphasis that is should on screw design and the advantages of lower melt temperatures with advanced screw design,” Dray said.


Things may be changing. In fact, it seems to be growing almost fashionable to question the very foundations of injection screw design that have been accepted for the past 60 years.


Item: Spiral Logic Ltd. of Hong Kong has developed a zero-compression screw that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Melting the resin is accomplished entirely by conductive heating from the heater bands, not by frictional shear. This is said to cure numerous ills: inconsistent melt temperature, pressure, density, and viscosity, as well as resin degradation and resulting “black specks.” One precision molder of medical parts, Makuta Technics, Shelbyville, Ind., swears by the SL screw. It and its associated molding company in Japan have equipped more than 100 machines with this technology. Makuta uses Sumitomo (SHI) Demag all-electric machines (Strongsville, Ohio), which are available with the SL screw. (Learn more about the SL screw here and about Makuta here.)


Item: A somewhat similar conclusion was reached by Xtrude2Fill in Loveland, Colo., which also exclusively uses conductive heating rather than frictional shear to melt the resin in the barrel. This is only one unusual aspect of an unconventional machine design that uses a fixed screw to extrude into the mold—essentially taking the injection out of injection molding. The concept was presented at our Molding 2016 Conference in March (see here for a report).


Item: Bob Dray’s firm, R. Dray Mfg., Hamilton, Tex., has addressed what it sees as the deficiencies of conventional injection screw design with the new All-Purpose Screw (APS). Dray says this special mixing screw (see photo), which can be easily modified to process a wide range of resin types and melt viscosities, offers the flexibility promised, but not delivered, by the so-called “general-purpose” injection screw, which Dray calls the “no-purpose” screw. (An exclusive in-depth report will appear in our June issue.)

R. Dray Manufacturing all-purpose screw

Are You Up to Speed on One of the Hottest Areas of Plastics Molding?

By: Matthew H. Naitove 2. May 2016

Answer that question with a definitive “Yes” by registering to attend “Thermoplastics Composites for Automotive” (TCC Auto 2016) on June 15-16 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Mich.


Presented by Plastics Technology magazine and CompositesWorld, sister publications within Gardner Business Media, TCC Auto 2016 will provide cutting-edge information on lightweighting, cost reduction through automation, and new approaches to automotive production for injection molders and composites fabricators. TCC Auto 2016 will be concurrent with the Amerimold 2016 show and conference, presented by Gardner’s MoldMaking Technology magazine.


This is only the second presentation of this unique conference. The first, in 2014, was literally a standing-room only event, with over 250 attendees. This year, over a day and a half, we’ll present 22 speakers on topics in Applications & Materials and Machinery & Processes for thermoplastic composites.


Machinery & Processes will present the following opportunities to evaluate state-of-the art technologies for getting in on the action in developing applications for automotive—and aerospace, electronics, and more:


 •  The RTM Process Family of Lightweight Construction Processes, Phillip Zimmerman, KraussMaffei Technologies GmbH. This machinery producer has pushed ahead with development of high-pressure resin transfer molding (HP-RTM) as a method of mass production with high fiber volumes (above 50%) and continuous fibers. You’ll learn about C-RTM, which adds a low-pressure compression stroke. It reduces capital investment and is already in use for series production of auto parts. Other topics are Wet Molding as a second life for recycled fibers, and T-RTM, polymerizing low-viscosity liquid caprolactam in the mold to produce a solid nylon 6 composite.


 •  Tailored Fiber Placement LFT-D, Louis Kaptur, Dieffenbacher Canada. The process of producing long-fiber thermoplastics directly from continuous fiber rovings (LFT-D) is already used for non-structural automotive parts such as underbody shields and covers. The next step is the transition to structural components by adding automated layup of continuous-fiber tapes.


 •  New Out-of-Press, Out-of-Autoclave Molding Technology for TP Composites, Lionel Schaaf, RocTool. Light Induction Tooling is a new molding technology using thin-shell metal molds and induction heating to produce large parts at low energy cost and reduced cycle times.


 •   Quilted Stratum Process, Andrew Rypkema, PEI Pinette USA. QSP is a new approach for automated manufacturing of high-performance TP composites, using continuous carbon fiber. It is said to offer low cost and short cycle times.


 •  Weld-Line Strength Prediction Through Combined Manufacturing & Structural Simulation, Brady Adams and Matt Jaworski, Autodesk, Inc. The author will present a mathematical model for predicting weld-line strength in fiber composites by using the manufacturing process history, as well as a strategy for transferring the weld surface strengths to a structural simulation. Correlation of predicted results to experimental data will be provided.


 •  Methodology Development for Experimental and Numerical Rheology Studies on the Plasticating Effect in Microcellular Foam Composites, Marcel Holzner, Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research. Here’s how use of dissolved supercritical nitrogen gas in 20% long-glass PP improves flow and mold filling. Autodesk Moldflow predictions of this process will be presented.


 •  Teijin’s Thermoplastic Composite Material Technology, Yutaka Yagi, Teijin Advanced Composites America, Inc. Sereebo is the name of a family of carbon-fiber reinforced TP materials (CFRTP), including materials for primary automotive structures and long-fiber pellets (Sereebo P-series). The materials are said to offer high levels of energy absorption and 60-sec cycles. This will be a special opportunity to learn about these materials and Teijin’s manufacturing process, as well as CAE modeling of static and dynamic properties, including prediction of crash behavior.


 •  Process Simulation for Long-Glass Injection Molding TP Composites: Predicting Damage and Orientation, Gabriel Geyne, Sigma Plastic Services, Inc. The latest software can predict the distribution of ultimate fiber lengths and orientation in molded parts.


 •  Validating Long-Fiber Reinforced Thermoplastics Using Industrial Computed Tomography (CT) Scanning, Andrew Good, Jesse Garant Metrology Center. Advanced, non-destructive inspection using x-rays provides visual confirmation and analysis of the distribution and orientation of fibers in molded parts.


 •  BAAM—How Big-Area Manufacturing is Changing Business, Richard Neff, Cincinnati, Inc. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati, Inc. have collaborated on the prototype of a very large 3D printer that can incorporate carbon fibers in large, structural parts. Learn about such projects as the 3D printed Shelby Cobra and Local Motors cars, a printed house, U.S. Army utility vehicle, and aerospace fabrication tooling.


 •  Advanced Compression & Injection Molding of Complex Components from Neat & Reinforced Thermoplastics, Chris Huskamp, Surface Generation Ltd. PtFS advanced heating, cooling, and process controls apply to injection and compression molding for automotive, aerospace, and consumer electronics. PtFS combines hardware and software to provide what’s called the first “digital molding environment” where “active thermal management” reportedly provides large reductions in energy consumption and enables filling of thin walls, elimination of weld lines and sinks, abrupt transitions between thin and thick sections, and high fiber loadings.


 •  Reversible Bonding: Efficient Fabrication, Disassembly, and Repair of Automotive Components, Mahmoodul Haq, Composite Vehicle Research Center, Michigan State Univ. College of Engineering. Newly discovered technology using ferromagnetic nanoparticle reinforced thermoplastic adhesives can bond dissimilar materials and allow fast, convenient part replacement and repair.


 •  Thermoplastic Tape Mchinery: Bringing Standardization to the Process, Matt Litzler, C.S. Litzler. Producing thermoplastic unidirectional tape has until now meant homemade machinery systems for small-scale production. Litzler is building on 63 years of prepreg machinery experience to bring standardization to this relatively new composites process. Industry is looking for “plug-and play” machinery similar to the standards for hot-melt thermoset tape systems.


Go here for more information on the conference agenda, registration, and hotel.

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