Is a robotic revolution underway in China?

By: Tony Deligio 13. August 2014

China was the second largest destination for industrial robots in 2012, with sales in the People’s Republic increasing an average of 25%/year from 2005 to 2012, according to the International Federation of Robotics 2013 World Robotics report.


Guangzhou, the epicenter of much of China’s plastics processing, is planning to build two to three “robot industrial development zones”, according to a China Daily article, appropriately headlined: Guangzhou to invest in robots.


In that article, a government official stated that more than 80% of manufacturing operations in Guangzhou would be using industrial robots by 2020, reflecting a period of “explosive growth.” Yi Ming, deputy director of the Guangzhou commission of economy and trade, added that at 30% demand growth, the capital of Guangdong Province was outpacing China’s overall interest in robotics.


Western suppliers look East
As a I researched an article on robotics within plastics processing for a special Industrial Automation supplement produced by PT’s publisher, Gardner Business Media, China emerged as a recurring theme.


My interview with Helen Ke Feng, global industry segment manager, plastics and rubber, at ABB was delayed as she traveled throughout Asia, spending two weeks in the region, noting that the her biggest demand growth came from the Chinese market.


Jean-Michele Renaudeau, managing director of Sepro, said his company is closely watching China. “We are optimistic about the future of Sepro in China,” Renaudeau said, adding that since salaries have been volatile, and increasing, a one-time investment in a robot can allow Chinese processors to stabilize production cost.


Beyond that, the Chinese market, like any market, sees the repeatability benefits that robotics can bring to a process. “Even in an emerging country like China,” Renaudeau said, “you see the exact same tendencies. There is a clear trend towards more robots because automation is the key for productivity, it is the key for quality.”


Jim Swim, business manager at custom automation supplier CBW, has seen interest in his company’s systems flow both ways: U.S. shops automating to meet increased production requirements due to reshored work, and Chinese molders automating to increase quality and lower costs as labor prices increase.


“It used to be that China just had to throw a lot of labor at a project,” Swim said, “but they’ve had to evolve into more automation.” When I visited CBW, one of the cells on its production floor was going through final testing before shipment to China. Swim said CBW has sent a few cells to China over the years, with the vast majority of its projects still in the U.S., and more to come if China doesn’t automate.


“The markets that have been used for China, like packaging, that used to be so much more cost effective,” Swim explained, “are not as cost effective anymore.”


At Chinaplas earlier this year in Shanghai, I asked Werner Wittmann, founder of what is now Wittmann Battenfeld, about the Chinese automation market. Wittmann was an early mover in China, adding production there in 2005. Over the last 8 years, Wittmann said that as labor costs rise in the country, there is greater pressure to automate. Today, there’s a focus on higher automation technology, with a switch from pneumatically driven to servodriven systems.


In March, one month prior to Chinaplas, German robot manufacturer KUKA Roboter GmbH opened a brand-new, 20,000 square meter production facility in Shanghai, with an annual capacity for up to 5000 robots. At the time, Till Reuter, CEO of KUKA AG, noted:


China is the world’s largest and fastest-growing robot market. We have a longstanding partnership with many renowned Chinese customers. In order to accommodate continued growth, we have now significantly increased our capacity in Shanghai.


An expectation for reliability
KUKA’s systems, just like ABB’s, Sepro’s, CBW’s, and Wittmann’s, will be priced to reflect their value. Today, Chinese processors have little choice but to pony up, with 90% of the robots purchased in China imported in, according to Guangzhou’s Ming. The government is hoping to address that with greater domestic supply, as noted in the China Daily article, but Sepro’s Renaudeau, for one, is still optimistic about the long-term prospects for Western robotics suppliers opportunities in China.


“There is a clear demand or expectation for reliability; it's a new philosophy for the Chinese market,” Renaudeau said. “The Chinese market will be very similar to the U.S. or European markets within a few years. You cannot afford to have molding machines or robots that are not being served, with the absolute guarantee that you have a partner that will be there.”

Processor gives employees the time, resources to “go back to school” at work

By: Tony Deligio 12. August 2014

Extruder Charter NEX Films, created by the combination of Charter Films and NEX Performance Films (read the June 2014 Onsite about the company), picked up on how important training was over a decade ago as Charter Films, according to Eric Smith, general manager. Plastics processing requires consistency—same material formula run with the same machine settings and the same inspection—but that repeatability is often lacking when it comes to training.


“Historically, training was done by another operator,” Smith says, “and depending on who the trainer was and the message you received on that specific day, the consistency becomes a little bit questionable. The other thing is: how do you make sure you get the message on how to do things across to people in the correct way, because over time, things can get lost in translation between individuals.”


The University is founded
For the sake of consistency, and to make its training more regimented, then Charter Films instituted its Charter University over a decade ago. As part of the June OnSite, Jim Callari highlighted the Charter NEX University (CNU) initiative. I spoke with Smith about the program as I researched a feature on workforce development for the our upcoming September issue.


The company, which buys German-made Windmoeller & Hoelscher lines,  started CNU with a focus on the high-tech machines, according to Smith.


“The idea that you’re going to take a 400-page manual and put it in front of somebody’s who come in to operate your line and train them that way just isn’t very productive,” Smith explains. Charter NEX’s solution was to break down specific components of the machine and the process and then post training modules, consisting of images, text and videos, to the company’s internal Intranet. At the end of each module, employees complete a test based on its content, to ensure the operator has seen and absorbed the lesson.


The program has evolved from integrating new workers to showing existing employees a potential career path within the company, and what knowledge they’ll need to advance down the road of promotion.


“CNU has laid out directly what employees need to do get to that next step in their job progression,” Smith says. “So it is a really a great development tool as well, in terms of saying, ‘We want our operators and our employees to grow, and here is the path they need to follow to do that.’ The sky’s the limit based on what you can do in terms of showing proficiency in developing these skills. There really was the opportunity to have people grow as quickly as they wanted to or could demonstrate.”


Living, breathing document
An overriding goal of CNU is to be continuously adapting, Smith explains, not only updating as process technology evolves, but also adding new topics, including ones outside shopfloor machinery.


“Now CNU is beyond just the training on pieces of equipment,” Smith said, noting that there are currently modules covering everything from health benefits to an employee’s 401K. “It goes beyond just the training. You’ve got a group of people who are asking, ‘What are the next topics for this living, breathing document? What is the next module that we think will be a valuable tool for the people that work in our facilities?’”


Giving employees the time, resources to learn
Another key to the program’s success: allotting time for employees to “hit the books” during their workday, with each employee provided with the time to do this development work while they’re on their shift, according to Smith.


“Employees have the ability to sit down and work through that module in the half hour or 45 minutes it takes to go through it,” Smith says, “and all of that development occurs while they’re on their shift, which shows the commitment of the company to say, ‘This is important to us, and we will provide that time for you to be able to do that while you’re here.’”


One recurring theme that came up again and again as I spoke with processors about the “skills gap” facing the U.S. manufacturing industry, was the need to look within a company’s own walls for new talent. If it’s hard to find (or pay them if you do) qualified process techs outside your company, commit to building your own in house, like Charter NEX has.


“There can be so many questions with regards to a sophisticated piece of equipment when you have somebody who really has no blown film manufacturing experience,” Smith explains “and being able to get that direct time to ask questions and have them answered—really allowing the opportunity for that development—I think that’s pretty unique in terms of a manufacturing operation.”

Former Hoover vacuum injection molding plant on the block

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

How the 423,435-ft2 former Hoover vacuum plant in El Paso came to be for sale is easier to answer. Back in March, TTI Floor Care, a Ohio-headquartered subsidiary of Hong Kong based Techtronic Industries Co. Ltd, announced it would close the El Paso plant, as well as a 274,295-ft2  operation across the border, as part of a “strategic” decision.


TTI came to own the facility, which boasts 150 Van Dorn injection molding machines ranging from 85 to 1,100 tons, back in 2007, when it bought the iconic brand of vacuums from Whirlpool for $107 million. Shortly thereafter, TTI created its floor care group, which consisted of Hoover, Dirt Devil and Vax (the company has since acquired the Oreck brand), headquartering it out of Glenwillow, Ohio, and promptly closing Hoover’s North Canton, Ohio production plant as part of an August 2007 “Strategic Repositioning Plan.” At the time, TTI said it would relocate manufacturing to Texas, Mexico and China.


On July 31, Los Angeles investment firm Hackman Capital Partners partnered with auction companies, BidItUp Auctions Worldwide and Maynards, to acquire the former Hoover properties. The price for the facilities and equipment, which were appraised for tax purposes at $12.2 million and $11.2 million, respectively, was not disclosed.


Steven Mattes, CEO of Mattes Diversified Industries, which owns Biditup, says his company is currently “fielding inquiries and entertaining potential buyers for the entire facility,” even offering financing or leasing, but if a single buyer doesn’t emerge, the company will conduct a “piecemeal auction” sometime this October.


Mattes is hopeful on the basis of the machines, noting that “market demand for the iconic Van Dorn  injection molding equipment remains very strong worldwide.” Adding to Mattes’ optimism are  his views that the used machinery markets are depleted of inventory while new equipment currently comes with “extended delivery dates.”


In addition to the Van Dorn’s, the plants also includes a “complete” CNC mold repair shop, as well as closed loop water chilling systems, nine 10-ton cranes, 120 granulators, and a complete material handling system, including resin silos.


Despite the consolidation of some U.S. operations, TTI, somewhat paradoxically, has been investing in the states as well. Last year it announced plans to hire more than 200 new electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, technicians and industrial designers nationwide over the next three years, and on July 8, it submitted the winning bid of $17.25 million for Oreck, including its Cookeville, Tenn. plant. At the auction, Simon Lawson, CEO of TTI Floor Care North America, said his company intends on maintaining production at that facility, saying the company feels it offers the business “a significant advantage.”


Further muddying the waters, particularly at a time when many companies are bringing production back to the U.S. and Mexico, is the fact that for the entire TTI Group, which includes popular power tool brands like Milwaukee and Ryobi, 73% of its sales come from the U.S.


Regardless of what happens to Hoover’s Texas plants, things are looking up for its former North Canton, Ohio operation. Back in 2011, Suarez Corporation Industries reshored production of its EdenPure heater to the facility.

Do today’s engineers know plastics?

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

That question was posed to me by John Winzeler, president of Winzeler Gear, when I interviewed him for a September magazine feature on workforce development (Winzeler was featured in PT’s July On-Site). Winzeler, himself a degreed engineer and third generation manufacturer, lamented the fact that so few programs include plastics on the syllabus.


“Probably 95% of the engineering schools have no plastics in their curriculum,” Winzeler said, “yet 50% of every product out there is made of plastics.” That fact makes building out a skilled team of employees a very difficult task for companies like Winzeler.


“The whole idea of a technical workforce is an overwhelming challenge today,” Winzeler said, “and if you just look at what’s going on at school, plastics is getting like zero attention.”


Kevin Dailey, human resources director for custom molder and contract manufacturer Mack Molding’s Northern Division, also spoke with me for the article, laying out his company’s apprenticeship program and general outreach to area schools.  


While he didn’t address plastics specific training in engineering schools, he did say that new grads show a general technical aptitude, admitting many of the company’s interns are “more familiar with [plastics manufacturing] than we thought.”


“We get a little bit hung up on what we do,” Dailey said. “If you’ve done it for years you really think it’s more involved than it is, but the way the engineering schools in particular are training their students these days; they’re up to speed on the latest and greatest software, they have that aptitude, intuitive mindset, where they just pick things up very quickly.”


Noel Ginsburg, president and founder of Denver based custom molder and contract manufacturer Intertech Plastics, also spoke with me about the skills gap in industry, a problem his company has aggressively attacked. While I visited, he described how Intertech was dealing with a lack of plastics training in engineering programs.


“The other day that one of our engineering interns asked if he could work here during the school year,” Ginsburg said. “The answer was yes, and then our engineering manager said, ‘and if when you graduate you’ll come to work for us, we’ll put you through some plastics specific training.’”


That’s one way to make sure future product designers work from a plastics-design-for-manufacturability viewpoint. Trained in plastics or not, we still need more engineers, and only time will tell if STEM is the means to get them.


In a 2010 presentation at the International Conference on Technology Education Research, William Dugger, emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and a senior fellow at the International Technology Education Association, laid out some sobering statistics, noting that just 4 percent of American college graduates in 2003 majored in engineering compared to 13 percent of European students and 20 percent of Asian students.


In the presentation, Dugger quoted Rodger Bybee, former chair of the Science Expert Group for the Programme for International Student Assessment:


“For a society so deeply dependent on technology and engineering, we are largely ignorant about technology and engineering concepts and processes, and we have largely ignored this incongruity in our educational system.”


Maybe we’re finally catching on. 

A second chance for Cereplast and Metabolix

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

On July 20, bioplastic service ware manufacturer Trellis Earth Products announced it would soon begin operation at Cereplast’s former Seymour, Ind., production site. Trellis, which is based in Wilsonville, Ore., acquired the assets of Cereplast including production equipment, patents, inventory and trademarks as part of that company’s Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings.


On August 4, Metabolix announced an injection of capital. According to the company, $25 million of its securities were sold to “Jack W. Schuler, Oracle Investment Management, Inc., Birchview Capital, certain members of the Company's Board of Directors and executive management team, and other investors.”


The company, which grew out of research at MIT, is seeking to gain its footing after the February 2012 decision by its former owner, Archer Daniels Midland, to end its commercial alliance with the company.


The overall market continues to develop, with global demand for biobased and biodegradable plastics forecast to rise 19 percent per year to 950,000 metric tons in 2017, but apart from companies like Natureworks and Braskem, which have already made significant investments in production capacity, smaller players, despite the novelty of their technologies, face an uphill battle.


I visited Cereplast at its original production plant in Southern California, and the company took tremendous strides since then, but the pressure to produce as publicly traded company (which Metabolix also must deal with), has to be exceptionally difficult for a material start up. Metabolix always generated buzz at SPE's annual GPEC conference, but buzz doesn't always translate to revenue. The injection of cash upon becoming a public company is good, and necessary in many cases, but the day-to-day performance pressure is not.

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