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Plastics Industry Puts Skills Gap in its Sights

By: Tony Deligio 17. September 2014

When you complete an article, sometimes you feel like everywhere you look news related to that topic is popping up.

 

In Plastics Technology’s September issue, I wrote about the so-called skills gap in manufacturing and what plastics companies are doing to address it, so the whole topic is still very top of mind for me. Apparently the issue is top of mind for lots of others as well. On September 16, I received five press releases related in various ways to the skills gap, ranging from a Manufacturing Day celebration to machine donations to schools to plastics education online and in apps. If awareness of the skills gap really is everywhere, that’s a good thing for the plastics industry.

 

Toshiba Machine announced it will host students and their teachers from local high schools, community colleges and universities for its first annual Manufacturing Day celebration. On Oct. 3, more than 600 Manufacturing Day celebrations will take place across the U.S. For Toshiba, celebrating means helping the U.S. “secure its leadership position in the global manufacturing marketplace by inspiring the next generation of workers to pursue careers in the industry.”

 

Toshiba’s event will run from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm at its corporate headquarters in Elk Grove Village, Ill.  Guest speakers will include Michael Taylor, Senior Director, International Affairs and Trade, Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) and Omar A. Ghrayeb, Associate Dean, Outreach and Undergraduate Programs, Northern Illinois University. Additional presentations at the event will come from Paulson Training Programs, RJG, Reiloy Westland and Yushin America.

 

SPI and Tooling U-SME launched a new online training program intended to close “the manufacturing skills gap in the plastics industry.” PlasticsU will provide a customized selection of courses and programs for a broad array of plastics related skills. SPI noted that the offerings range from a basic introduction to the most advanced studies, with courses including Interpreting Blueprints; Creating a Milling Program; Principles of Injection Molding; Measuring System Analysis; Rigging Inspection and Safety; and CNC Controls.

 

Milacron announced an expansion of its Education Partnership program, specifically shipping a Magna T Servo injection molding machine to Salt Lake Community College in support of its short-term intensive training program for injection molding. Milacron noted that it has more than 40 machines supporting learning institutions across the U.S.

 

The Salt Lake Community College molding lab currently features three machines, with room for five. The plastics program’s goal is to train up to 15 students every eight weeks. Milacron also noted that Penn State Erie, which offers an accredited plastics engineering technology degree, celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first graduating class in 2014. The multimillion dollar Penn State lab, which has equipment from Milacron and others, provides more than 125 students hands-on training every year.

 

Routsis Training announced the release of its new Injection Molding Reference Guide app for both Apple and Android devices. Routsis notes that the reference guide gives process techs the info they need to troubleshoot and establish a scientific molding process. The app also includes information regarding Routsis’ RightStart and SmartTech training, including video previews from actual training courses.

 

Finally, the first ever International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training was held, an event described as a “global dialogue about the importance of a skilled workforce for economic competitiveness.”

 

Jim Wall, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) attended highlighting the NIMS’ Competency-Based Apprenticeship System. NIMS reported that the congress focused on “building a positive image of vocational training, supporting bilateral exchanges between the private sector and policymakers, and presenting best practices in companies and schools.”

 

What Does the Future of Manufacturing Hold?

By: Tony Deligio 10. September 2014

Dividing the manufacturing industry by region and sector, an ambitious study attempts to ferret out its future through 2050, with some interesting results. Valentijn de Leeuwm, VP ARC Advisory Group, shared the findings in a webinar entitled: The Future of Manufacturing: Scenarios for Investment in Manufacturing through 2050.

 

Some key takeaways:

 

Sustainability: Industry will undergo major restructuring and modernization due to the pressure for sustainability, which will be less and less ideological and more driven by necessity and scarcity.

 

Reshoring: Technology-enabled re-shoring of small-scale production (mass customization) will require traditional automation to instrument, automate, and connect new categories of devices to enable the industrial Internet of Things (IoT).

 

Connectivity: Data from a single or multiple plants must often be aggregated, integrated with supply chain and business data, analyzed, and exploited to enable what ARC refers to as “information-driven manufacturing.”

 

de Leeuwm placed “rubber and plastics” in the global innovation for local markets group, along with automotive, electrical/electronic, and chemicals. On a regional basis, Africa and “Emerging Asia” were classified as “factor-driven” economies, with Latin America and the Middle East labeled as “efficiency-driven” and Europe, North America and Developed Asia as “innovation-driven.”   

 

In terms of investment growth, the study sees the highest rates in Africa (7%), followed by Latin America (6%), with Emerging Asia and the Middle East both at 5%. Europe is forecast to see 4% growth, while North America and Developed Asia come in at 3%.

 

The study forecasts that the global innovation for local markets industry group, which includes plastics,  will grow steadily but slowly and then be overtaken in investment by the technology innovators industry group (machinery, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals), after 2025.

 

In its “most likely scenario”, the study forecasts that industrial production will grow worldwide until at least 2050.

 

Efficiency-driven economies will experience the highest growth, and innovation-driven economies will also continue to grow and remain important areas for investment, largely because manufacturing has become a high priority as a source of social and economic development. In factor-driven economies, industrial production will slowly grow and accelerate after 2030, but remain small at world scale.

 

de Leeuwm believes local sourcing will be a big driver of manufacturing in the future, regardless of the region. “We will probably produce more locally,” de Leeuwm said. “We foresee large plants making commodities at a very large scale, then shipping materials, with things made locally.”

 

He was most interested in the potential impact a more connected manufacturing industry could have on efficiency. “We believe optimization will become more and more large scale,” de Leeuwm said. “Today we optimize a plant or line, in the future we will do several plants together, real time.”

3D Printing of “Porous” Tools Awarded Walmart Research Grant

By: Tony Deligio 9. September 2014

Additive manufacturing has long been used to add conformal cooling channels to injection molds, maximizing heat transfer efficiency, but what if it could be taken further, using just the amount of material needed in just the right place to create a porous tool sub-structure that would lessen the tool’s cost and weight while boosting its efficiency?

 

That’s exactly the goal of a team of researchers at the Purdue School of Engineering & Technology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) who received a  grant from retailer Walmart’s U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund and the United States Conference of Mayors.

 

The two-year $291,202 grant will fund IUPUI’s research project: “Optimal Plastic Injection Molding Tooling Design and Production through Advanced Additive Manufacturing.” The project’s goal is to reduce the cost and increase the performance of U.S.-made tooling through what it calls “multiscale, thermo-mechanical topology optimization methods and metal additive manufacturing.”

 

Andrés Tovar, an assistant professor in IUPUI’S Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the goal is to create a “free-form, lightweight, innovative structure of maximum performance….a lightweight structure of maximum mechanical stiffness and maximum heat dissipation.”

 

IUPUI is working with Hewitt Molding Company (Oakford, Indiana) and 3D Parts Manufacturing (Indianapolis) on the project, with 3D Part Manufacturing using its EOS EOSINT M 280 direct metal laser sintering system to build the porous tools.

 

A sample product confirmed the potential benefits, according to Tovar. He estimates that “conservatively” the optimized porous tool would allow 30% cost reduction, derived directly from material saving, as well as a 20% performance increase based on greater cooling efficiency and a shorter cycle time.

 

In addition, Tovar’s team expects to see tool life increase of at least 10% compared to conventional cavity molds, with a lower cost per plastic part (from $0.62/piece to $0.58/piece for a given industrial test case), and increased part quality by eliminating imperfections resulting from non-uniform cooling.

 

“The cost of 3D printing is proportional to the weight,” Tovar said, “so, what we propose is: we can take those designs of molds and redesign them by changing the solid fill material with porous material. So we can have complex molds with conformal cooling in a porous structure.”

 

Done correctly, Tovar notes the novel design will have no deleterious impact on the tool’s integrity. “Mechanically it’s going to maintain the structural stability; it doesn’t compromise any structural performance; it’s not going to deform; it’s not going to change over time, due to deformation. Wherever it needs to have the material, it will put the material in there.”

 

Over the next two years, Tovar said his team, in conjunction with Hewitt and 3D Parts, will create production tools to further test the technology, and fine tune the predictive models and algorithms that determine the tool’s cellular structure. In addition, molding trials will allow the researchers to incorporate processing parameters into the algorithm. Above all, the trials will create data, something currently lacking in the additive manufacturing field.

 

“There is very little data out there available about the thermal and mechanical properties of layered materials using additive manufacturing,” Tovar explained, “so we want to populate that data base.” Better data = better algorithm.

 

If the predicted results are proven out, Tovar believes that additive manufacturing could encroach on long-held subtractive manufacturing techniques.

 

“We believe porous structures are going to be more and more common in many thermo mechanical components,” Tovar said. “If you put the holes in in the right way then the mechanical performance is not going to be decreased and the thermal performance is going to be higher. We believe it will be cheaper for the manufacturer.”

 

Oregon State partners with Arburg
Given how many of the products it sells are made from plastics, with all of those requiring a tool or die, Walmart is keenly aware how important advances in mold and die production could be as it works to ramp up U.S. sourcing.

 

In addition to Tovar and IUPUI, Sundar V. Atre and Rajiv Malhotra, researchers at Oregon State University, were awarded a $590,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. Their research project involves “novel metal additive manufacturing processes for fabricating low cost plastic injection molds.”

 

Oregon State will partner with MTI Albany (direct laser sintering), North American Höganäs (tailoring metal powders)  and injection molding machine supplier Arburg (testing mold performance).

 

Atre told Plastics Technology that his team is developing two additive manufacturing approaches to create molds, with tool steel as the base material. In an Oregon State release, Atre estimated their technique could reduce mold-making costs by 40-50% noting:

 

“Current practices for fabricating these molds are labor-intensive and costly, and much of the mold material is wasted as metal chips. [Additive manufacturing] will give U.S. manufacturing an edge.”

Recipients of Walmart's 2014 Manufacturing Research Grants

Wal-Mart's Made in America Pledge and Plastics

By: Tony Deligio 27. August 2014

For the outsized influence it exerts on manufacturers the world over, there’s one important thing to remember about Wal-Mart, a basic fact stated by company President CEO Doug McMillon during that company’s second U.S. Manufacturing Summit held in Denver.

 

“We don’t make anything,” McMillon, pictured above, said. “We can’t provide value to customers on great items like these and others without having a strong collaborative relationship with you.”

 

The “you” referred to the more than 200 component part suppliers and contract manufacturers that had come to Denver for the second iteration of the summit, hailing from 42 states and Puerto Rico.

 

The “these” referred to the array of U.S. made merchandise stacked around the stage—easily recognizable brands and products as ready props to substantiate the retailer’s January 2013 pledge to source an additional $50 billion in U.S. products over the next decade.

 

It was that pledge that launched the inaugural U.S. Manufacturing Summit held in Orlando last year. The event is meant to serve as a matchmaking mixer between brand owners and U.S. manufacturers, giving the Procter & Gamble’s of the world a face and a name for a U.S. option to manufacture its various brands.

 

Setting the stage
In the minutes before the event began, workers from the Denver Convention Center and Wal-Mart representatives scurried around the auditorium stage, rearranging the product props that ranged from plastic bins and coolers to tires, TVs and light bulbs, with household names like Crest, L’Oreal, Good Year, and John Deere represented.

 

As I settled into my seat accompanied by a media handler, a Wal-Mart representative rushed past, saying aloud the instructions relayed to him on his headset: “Candles with the Old Spice and Connect 4 with the games.”

 

With every product positioned, a video, preceded by Toby Keith’s “Made In America” playing on the loudspeakers, launched the proceedings. On the large screen above the center of the stage, a camera panned across an abandoned factory, while a narrator intoned, “It’s time to get back to what America does best.”

 

Theatrical to be sure, but the summit, which also featured a exposition hall for manufacturers to pitch their skills to reshoring-inclined brand owners, was very much a practical exercise in connecting companies.

 

Michael Araten, president of K’NEX Brands, which includes injection molder, The Rodon Group, sat on a panel with Jim Stephen, executive chairman of Weber-Stephen Products LLC, maker of the iconic Weber grills.

 

Just during their brief time back stage, Araten had already pitched Rodon’s molding capabilities to an interested Stephen for wheels and other plastic elements of the company’s barbecues. Araten himself was on the lookout for new suppliers.

 

“I’m looking for toy motors and I hope I find them tomorrow,” Araten noted. Earlier in the event, a Wal-mart executive encouraged attendees to interact with people around them, noting that the person sitting next to them could supply “the key thermoplastic compound” needed for a new product.

 

Lincoln Logs, Made in the U.S.A. again
Araten also helped lay out the challenge faced by brandowners looking to reshore production that had been shipped overseas years ago. He announced that for the first time in 60 years, production of Lincoln Logs would return to the U.S., a move made possible with Wal-Mart’s help.

“I want to thank Wal-Mart for doing what it is doing here, which is connecting people,” Araten said. Without events like the one in Denver, Araten explained that K’NEX had resorted to the “pick and shovel work of little Google searches” as it tried to reshore production, with mixed results.

 

“It took us four tries to find factories that could not only do it and achieve the quality,” Araten said of Lincoln Log production, “but do it in the high volume you need to fulfill the scale of places like Wal-Mart.”

 

And that last comment is indeed part of the challenge. Wal-Mart, and its vendors, are cold-calling U.S. manufacturers at a time when many have been greatly diminished by a decade of offshoring driven in part by a lower-costs-at-all-costs mentality. To its credit, the retailer gets that and is trying to help U.S. industry regain its footing.  

 

Always low prices
“Yes we want to offer a value,” McMillon said, noting the retailer’s mentality is to run a low margin on high volume, adding that it wants its suppliers to “have a like mind about that.”

 

But, McMillon noted, that’s no longer the entire bottom line. “We want you to be able to make money, and we want you to invest in your business for the long term,” McMillon said. “We want you to innovate, to invest in R&D and create the next new item for next year or years beyond so it’s important that we have that kind of open, trustful dialogue as we do it together.”

 

On the innovation front, Wal-Mart’s U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund issued $4 million in grants to seven research and development institutions to “create new processes, ideas, and jobs that will foster America’s growing manufacturing footprint.”

 

Oregon State University has been chosen for one of the first seven grants from the Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund created by Walmart and The Walmart Foundation to help accelerate manufacturing in the United States.

 

Among these was Oregon State University, which received a $590,000 grant for the development of innovations in injection molding; and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), which received a $291,202 grant to support its “Optimal Plastic Injection Molding Tooling Design and Production through Advanced Additive Manufacturing,” research project.

 

‘Stronger economy for everyone’
McMillon sees the summit in Denver, and its overall Made in the U.S.A. push of the last several years, as seizing on an important occasion. “In the U.S., we believe this window of time, these last few years and the years to come, create a great opportunity for us to lean in, do things more aggressively and differently than we would have before and convene groups like this one to create together the situation where U.S. manufacturing can grow and be successful and create an even stronger economy for everyone.”

 

To pass time in the car, my eldest daughter often counts Wal-Mart trucks. We spend a fair amount of time on the main north/south interstate by our house, and there is a Wal-Mart distribution center 25 miles north on that same highway, so on longer drives, it’s not hard for her to reach some pretty big numbers.

 

Since the summit, it’s been reassuring for me to visualize those trucks being filled with more and more U.S. made goods (many of the plastics heavy) and see more and more “Made in the U.S.A.” stickers on Wal-mart’s shelves. Hopefully it’s a trend other retailers and brand owners emulate. (Pictured below from left: Walmart U.S. Chief Merchandising & Marketing Officer Duncan Mac Naughton, Michael Araten of K’NEX and Jim Stephens of Weber Stephens). 

‘There are no unskilled jobs here anymore’

By: Tony Deligio 20. August 2014

Completed in conjunction with the Manufacturing Institute, the study, which was conducted between August 2013 and January 2014, surveyed more than 300 manufacturing executives hailing from companies with an average annual revenue of $100 million.

 

Cervinka’s quote highlights the predicament those manufacturers currently find themselves in. The jobs they need to fill are becoming more and more complex while the pool of people who can do them becomes more and more shallow.

 

The survey found that 80% of manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage in finding highly skilled workers, while at the same time, skilled and highly skilled roles make up 80% of their workforce.

 

As these companies face a labor shortfall, many are simultaneously attempting to boost production. According to the report, more than 50% of companies reported plans to increase U.S. based production by at least 5% in the next five years. In general, the U.S. manufacturing sector has enjoyed an annual growth rate of 7.7% between 2009 and 2011, reaching its highest level ever at more than $5.4 trillion in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis – Manufacturing Industry Data. Productivity in the U.S. has jumped nearly 20% from 2001 to 2011, increasing is every year save two—2008 and 2009—according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by Accenture.

 

That’s despite the very real, and detrimental, impact of too few skilled workers. According to the report, 62% of respondents saw an increase in production downtime of 5% or more, while 66% reported cycle time increases of 5% or more.

 

Survey participants are actively working to address the gap, however, with almost 10% spending more than $5,000 annually per employee on skills training, with the average respondent spending about $1,000 annually per employee for skills training.

 

The report also identified some best practices companies are deploying to address the skills shortfall.

 

Digital learning experiences—“Embracing digital technologies to offer learning experiences anytime, anywhere.”

 

Combine formal and informal training—“All of the leading companies we interviewed had some form of established relationships with local community colleges or vocational technical programs.”

 

Use a certification approach to skills building—“Not only do employers gain confidence that their employees are able to perform at a given level of skill, employees gain confidence in their own abilities as they acquire new skills certifications.”

 

The bottom line is the gap is actually impacting companies’ bottom lines, with the report finding that earnings were reduced up to 11% annually due to increased production costs and revenue losses due to skills shortages. The problem will only get worse, with the U.S. Department of Labor stating the average age of manufacturing labor was 44.1 years in 2011.

 

In our September issue, Plastics Technology will see how some plastics processors are attempting to bridge the gap. Does your company have a contingency plan?

 

 




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