When Was Your Plastics Epiphany?

By: Tony Deligio 29. January 2015

Michael Engler, currently the VP of operations at custom injection molder AMA Plastics, Riverside, Calif., remembers how his woodshop teacher, Mr. Hensler, kept a small thermoformer and compression molding machine in the class and for that week he talked to students about the basics of plastics, from how it melts to its thermoset and thermoplastic variations.


Sitting in AMA’s second-floor conference room, Engler recalls that distant introduction to plastics, and how he used Mr. Hensler’s compression machine to mold a blue screwdriver he still has. While we talk, AMA’s 93 injection molding machines produce thousands of parts (although no screwdrivers), as he reflects on how an adolescent interest became a lifelong career.


Engler was hooked from an early age, and encouraged all along the way in his pursuit of plastics. At Williamsport Area High School, his 10th grade physics teacher, Mr. Boyer, pushed Engler to attend an open house for the polymer program at Penn State’s Pennsylvania College of Technology.


“I knew the math would be hard, but I was so excited about plastics I was able to survive calculus and the rest was history,” Engler recalls.


Once in college, he studied under Tim Weston, who helped start the polymer program for the Williamsport campus, and later became his neighbor. “We still speak to this day,” Engler says.


As a college junior, Engler’s plastics story came full circle, when visited his former middle school, where a thermoformer and compression molding machine piqued his interest in plastics, and spoke to the entire student body about careers in plastics.


As Engler took me on a tour of AMA earlier this month, his enthusiasm for the industry he’s worked his entire career in was evident. It’s not unusual either—apart from machines and pellets, one thing I always find when I tour a processor is people who are passionate about plastics. Engler’s story of how his plastics career started got me thinking about how others were bit by the plastics bug.


Last year Plastics Technology addressed the issue of workforce development and the need to introduce kids to plastics in middle school or younger was stressed by processors and educators. When did you get hooked on plastics? Do today’s kids have the same opportunity? 

Manufacturing’s State of the Union Was…Mixed

By: Tony Deligio 28. January 2015

Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, U.S. Constitution:


“[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”


Last week, President Barack Obama updated the union’s state and gave a joint session of Congress a list of measures he judged “necessary and expedient” for the sixth time going back to 2010 [his first address to a joint session of Congress roughly month after his election in 2009, wasn’t technically a SOTU].


The support the 44th president has in the plastics industry specifically and manufacturing in general is grudging at best, but I’ve spoken with several people on the industry’s advocacy side who acknowledge Obama has in general been attentive to if not supportive of manufacturing.


Two weeks ago, my colleague Lilli Manolis Sherman wrote about the visit Obama and Vice President Joe Biden paid to Techmer PM, where he announced a $250-million advanced composite innovation hub. Reshoring advocate Harry Moser was a guest of the White House in 2012, participating in its Insourcing American Jobs Forum.

That same year, Obama’s SOTU address directly referenced “manufacturing” 12 times (can you spot “manufacturing” in the word cloud?). In 2015, however, direct mentions of manufacturing were down, as were tangential references, but they were still present.


Economic recovery: We believed we could reverse the tide of outsourcing, and draw new jobs to our shores. And over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs.


Skills gap: Thanks to Vice President Biden's great work to update our job training system, we're connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics. 


Infrastructure: Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined. Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs. Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. 


Trade: More than half of manufacturing executives have said they're actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. 


Industry Responds
Many in manufacturing watched the address, sharing their thoughts in real time via Twitter or issuing responses afterwards. Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI,  noted the need for the president to deliver on a promised “reach across the aisle” on areas that impact plastics. “Many of our industry’s most important issues are ripe for bipartisan solutions in 2015,” Carteaux stated, specifically citing:

Continued access to natural resources that provide not just the power to run our facilities, but also constitute our primary supply of raw materials. 


Long overdue update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to ensure that chemical regulation takes a risk-based approach going forward


Modernization of America’s antiquated tax code


Action on multi-lateral trade agreements that break down export barriers


Carteaux said that SPI was “troubled” by some of the tax policy proposals outlined by Obama, “particularly those that could deter investors from risking capital, and others that would negatively impact family-owned plastics industry businesses.” 


Carteaux also noted that SPI’s advocacy team was on Capitol Hill when 2015’s Congressional class, including 13 new senators and 58 new members of the House, took the oath of office, adding that at least on that day “the sense of urgency in tackling the nation’s priorities was tangible.”


The headline at the National Association of Manufacturer’s (NAM) following the address echoed that mixed reaction:


President’s Call for Pro-Trade Policies Promising Sign for Manufacturers

However, Punitive Tax Plan Sends Wrong Signal


NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons, like Obama, touched on the resurgent economy, however he gave direct credit for its renewed vitality to manufacturing, before noting the president’s “mixed messages” for industry.


“Manufacturers powered the American resurgence the President hailed tonight. Manufacturing in the United States is back. But instead of firmly pressing the accelerator to strengthen the dreamers, makers and builders of America, the President offered the country mixed messages. While some are positive, others threaten to put the brakes on our economic revival.”


In terms of NAM’s “positives” in the address, Timmons cited:

The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)


Addressing workforce issues and skills gap


Ensuring long-term solutions to infrastructure


Like SPI, however, NAM took issue with the tax proposals laid out by Obama.


“Unfortunately, the tax plan the President introduced tonight sends the wrong signal. We’re just beginning to come out of the depths of the recession. We need more policies that encourage investment, entrepreneurship and success, not less.”


What did you think? Are trade deals, infrastructure and the skills gap areas where Obama and Republicans can come together for the betterment of manufacturing, or were those fleeting glimmers of bipartisan compromise overshadowed by D.O.A. tax proposals? 

Plastics Plug In To Charged-Up Electronics Sector

By: Tony Deligio 22. January 2015

That much was abundantly clear in Heinz Rasinger’s presentation at injection molding machine and automation supplier Engel’s recent “teletronics” (a mash up of telecom and electronics) technology symposium at its Technical Center in Corona, Calif.


Rasinger, VP of Engel’s teletronics business unit, examined broader market numbers through a regional lens and then shifted focus to how new technologies could influence future opportunities for plastics.


Where Electronics, Automotive and Medical Meet
Electronics as a plastics market were once largely relegated to expected consumer categories like TVs or desktop computers, but today they have significant penetration in other key segments for Engel, including automotive, as cars add displays, sensors and cameras, as well as medical, where the “wearables” segment is set to explode.


Rasinger noted that globally the entire teletronics segment, which includes everything from flat-screen displays and mobile phones to automotive connectors and photovoltaics for Engel, has grown from a value of $836 million in 2009 to  $1.068 billion in 2013, before shrinking slightly to $1.055 billion last year.


Most of that growth is coming in the Emerging Asia markets of China, Vietnam, and India, while business has stagnated or even reversed in established markets like Japan. Emerging Asia jumped from $181 million to $286 million over the last five years, expanding at around 15%/yr. More locally and coming off the recession of 2009, North America jumped from $223 million in 2010 to $250 million in 2011, and has grown, if slowly, from there, reaching $254 million last year.


Displays, Displays Everywhere
Rasinger discussed the ubiquity of displays in our everyday lives, ranging from a couple square inches on a printer to massive 67-inch televisions, with Engel machines molding bezels and other key components for all regardless of size.


Apart from continued growth, other trends for the segment predicted by Rasinger include back injection of touch-sensitive foils and the emergence of flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens, replacing LCD displays, that are more rigid and require backlighting.


OLEDs Take On LCDs (and Backlights?)
Rasinger was reluctant to predict how OLED tech might change the market, but he was certain they would evolve the sector. “Nobody really knows with certainty the impact of OLEDs on injection molding but there is one thing for sure, the backlighting units, as they were before, will be a thing of the past,” Rasinger said.


Asked to expand on his statement after the presentation, Rasinger still hesitated to make a firm prediction, but reiterated that OLEDs will remain a closely watched development by Engel and others.


“It would be good if we could really put our hands on OLED’s impact, and say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’” Rasinger said, “but electronics is a very rapidly moving area—they invent new things on a constant basis—and with every new invention there are opportunities that can be created that haven’t been possible thus far.”


Mobiles On the Move
Some of the most striking numbers presented by Rasinger came in the mobile phone segment of his presentation, including the fact that mobile phones have a global market penetration of 97%—meaning that for every 100 people on earth, there are 97 mobile phones. In fact, several countries boast more phones than population to use them, including the U.S. (103), Brazil (137) and Russia (155).


In terms of penetration, the top countries for smart phones are almost entirely a mix of the Mid and Far East: U.A.E.,  South Korea, Saudi Arabia,  and Singapore, with Norway as the lone western representative.


In 2013, 1.8 billion mobile phones were sold, according to Rasinger’s data, with almost half of global mobile phone production for smart phones. The rise of smart phones has been a boon for Samsung, Rasinger pointed out, and a bust for former market leaders like Research In Motion (Blackberry) and Nokia, whose inability to adapt cost them market share and sovereignty.  


Computers Log Out
Desktop computer sales have shrunk by 130% from 2012 to 2014, while laptops have contracted (down 15%), but not nearly as much. “I think the growth in this segment has been eaten up by these new mobile devices,” Rasinger said. “You could see from the graphs that desktops are stagnant but they still keep their level, while laptops are slightly decreasing. The real winners are the tablets.”


From Smart Phones to Smart Cars
With automotive production forecast to grow 6%/yr through 2017, reaching 107 million vehicles globally at that time, the automotive electronics market is forecast to reach a value of $48 billion.


That includes traditional applications like connectors and switches, as well as new areas like driver assistance systems, sensors,  and cameras. In the future, the addition of photovoltaics for power and OLEDs for rear lighting could mean even more opportunities for plastics on the road.


“I think driver assistance systems are really going to take off,” Rasinger said after his presentation. “As usual, things like this start in the luxury cars then migrate their way down.”


What’s next?
The future for electronics? Wearables (and the printed and flexible electronics that make them possible). According to IDTechEx, wearable electronics are forecast to explode from a value of $14 billion in 2014 to more than $70 billion in 2024, while the total printed and flexible electronic market grows by 27%/year through 2020. 

Rethink Ramps Up Robotics Revolution With New Round of Funding

By: Tony Deligio 13. January 2015

When temperatures dipped into negative territory last week, some pipes in Rethink Robotics’ red-brick South Boston headquarters—a repurposed industrial space from the 1890s—burst, dousing desks but not dampening spirits for the innovative startup that is “rethinking” automation.


Rethink’s chief marketing officer, Jim Lawton, told Plastics Technology that his company’s plumbing issues had no impact on robots currently in production and did little to dismay the robot manufacturer in light of the news it announced on the same day: an additional $26.6 million in Series D financing coming from GE Ventures and Goldman Sachs.


Since its launch in 2008, Rethink has generated more than $100 million in funding, with this latest round to support continued innovation and global growth. To date, apart from robots installed at research institutions, the “several hundred” Baxter’s that are up and running in manufacturing are solely in the U.S., according to Lawton.


Not for long, however, as interest in the collaborative robots comes in from all over, particularly the Far East. “There’s a tremendous market for robots in Asia,” Lawton said. “China hasn’t leveraged automation nearly as much as other parts of the world.”

Learning From the Field
Following the 2008 founding, Rethink actually launched its Baxter line of collaborative robots in the fall of 2012, with its first orders shipped in the first quarter of 2013. Since those Baxter’s were deployed, Rethink has been rethinking its product, optimizing its collaborative robot.


“Now we have a couple of years of really good understanding,” Lawton said. “Here’s where [the robots] work, here’s where they don’t. What we’ve done since we started shipping the robot is  build up a really good understanding of where you can deploy—here’s where it’s more challenging; here’s where it makes sense.”


Since those first Baxter’s were installed at the start of 2013, Lawton said Rethink has made changes, but primarily on the software side. On the hardware side, the company intentionally created a design that could “sustain us for a long time,” according to Lawton.


Imprecise Precision
Lawton noted that historically, automation has been about building out the most precise hardware and packaging it with a programmable software platform. Rethink purposely avoided building Baxter with the most exacting motors and gears in the world, and not just because they’re extraordinarily expensive.


Instead it designed Baxter with what is known as “compliant motion control” similar to how human arms work, allowing the robot to feel its way around a job.


All Baxter’s joints have springs in them, giving them certain amount of give. Where other robots utilize sensors and vision systems to try to achieve exact movements through space, adding cost and the potential for mishaps if elements become misaligned, Baxter operates via feel. Lawton says this allows the robot to work under imprecise pick and imprecise place scenarios, granting it greater flexibility for future jobs.


Lawton recalls visiting with a plastics customer in the Chicago area recently who pointed out his shop’s automation graveyard—a deserted corner of the plant where ultra precise systems that were too inflexible to take on new jobs had been mothballed ever since their molding run was up.


For Baxter, it’s a question of wheeling the robot to another job, and showing it what to do, according to Lawton. Improvements to Baxter’s programming algorithm have boosted speed and precision by “path planning” or figuring out the most efficient way for the robot to move through space.


Within plastics, the robots are tending machines, packing cartons, and undertaking general material handling tasks, including things like loading/unloading inserts. These are instances where a human could do the work, but it’s often tedious, making it prone to errors that generate scrap.


Putting a Face With a Robot
Where Baxter also differs is in how it interacts with the humans it’s designed to work alongside. The robot has a “face” that follows people that enter its work space and, as a human would, hints at its next move.


“If you were here and I took a drink, you would see my eyes glance at the drink before I would move,” Lawton explained. “You don’t think about that, but I’m sending you a signal, and you know what I’m going to do; you’re not surprised. Comfort comes from trusting that you have a general sense of where the robot is going to move.”


In addition to a face, Baxter is fixtured with human-like arms, giving people around it a clear understanding of its reach and range of movements, for instance. “I’m not dissing six-axis robots, they’re very good at what they do, but they really have to operate with a cage. They can be coiled like a snake—I have no idea how far it can reach, and how fast it can get there.”


If Baxter crowded you, however, you could get his attention, according to Lawton. “If I grab its arm it will look at me,” he explained. “Baxter has a face; he has anticipatory artificial intelligence; he will give an indication of what he’s likely to do before he does it. This helps humans get comfortable with a robot.”

Comfortable enough, that Lawton and Rethink believe collaborative robots can become a fixture in many settings, not just a molding cell.


“Last year, a lot of automation suppliers rebranded themselves as making collaborative robots,” Lawton said, adding that he thinks that’s a positive. “The concept has gone from intellectual curiosity to, ‘Wow these are real.’ I firmly believe you will see collaborative robots in every single manufacturing facility, every home.”


Tea Leaves Point to Growth, Greater Connectivity in Manufacturing in 2015

By: Tony Deligio 6. January 2015

Apart from college football bowl games and resolutions, few things are as synonymous with the New Year as predictions. Below I’ve linked to some prognostications for the manufacturing sector over the coming year, many of which foreshadow similar story lines.


Back in September, I wrote about the ARC Advisory Group’s efforts to map manufacturing’s future through 2050, let alone the next 12 months, where the concept of broader connectivity and “information-driven” manufacturing were key elements.


On Dec. 5, International Data Corp. (IDC) released its worldwide manufacturing predictions for 2015, which pointed to the data-driven factory foretold by ARC. Simon Ellis, practice director IDC Manufacturing Insights, talked about “ubiquitous connectivity and data-driven insights” in the report, which included some specific forecasts.


  • By 2017, manufacturers will actively channel 25% of their IT budgets through industry clouds that enable seamless and flexible collaboration models.
  • In 2015, product quality, including compliance, will underpin two thirds of all IT application investments across the manufacturing organization.
  • In 2015, 65% of companies with more than 10 plants will enable the factory floor to make better decisions through investments in operational intelligence.
  • Investments that enable digitally executed manufacturing will increase 50% by the end of 2017, as manufacturers seek to be more agile in the marketplace.


Laura D. Reilly of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute had six predictions for manufacturing in 2015, with two specifically focused on technology bettering plant floor output. In addition to ongoing reshoring, a manufacturing boom, increased capital investment, and sector growth that would outstrip GDP’s, Reilly talked about big data and predictive maintenance.


Big data will drive big efficiency: Sensor technologies will drive the concept of connected factories, and will fuel the introduction of mobility-based manufacturing. Web browsers will be used as dashboards to control equipment, identify snags, and make quick decisions that would have previously taken entire teams of people to handle. As connected factories go online, myriad amounts of data will be collected. But 2015 will see that data put to use in a smarter way that makes things operate more efficiently.


Increased investments in predictive maintenance technologies: The proliferation of better and cheaper sensor technologies combined with the trend of connected factories will allow for greater opportunity to implement predictive maintenance technologies that will cut downtime and boost bottom lines.


Boom…Renaissance…Bounce Back
In terms of manufacturing’s predicted performance in 2015, the forecasts are downright rosy. For her part, Reilly sees a “manufacturing boom” in the U.S. saying the sector can “reasonably expect between 4% and 5% growth” with “a new wave of domestic manufacturing” launching in 2015. As part of this wave, Reilly also forecasts the “replacement of aging legacy equipment and investment in new capital equipment that performs better, more efficiently and more reliably.”


Plastics Technology’s Jim Callari and Steve Kline recently tackled the capital spending outlook for plastics (full article here).


PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) sees a “bounce back” for the U.S. in 2015. While China slows and Europe adopts quantitative easing, India is expected to turn the corner and sub-Saharan Africa’s expansion will outpace global growth.


In our main scenario we are projecting the US economy to grow by more than 3% in 2015, the fastest growth rate since 2005. We still expect China to make the biggest contribution to global growth in 2015. However, its projected growth rate of 7.2% would be its slowest since 1990 and its high debt levels pose some downside risks to that main scenario.


Daniel J. Meckstroth, vice president and chief economist as well as council director of the MAPI Purchasing Council, is calling for an acceleration in manufacturing’s growth in 2015, fueled by housing (and subsequently appliances), as well as automotive. Meckstroth, who believes manufacturing growth will outpace that of the overall economy, forecasts that in 2015:


  • Auto sales will increase 3%
  • Housing starts will jump 29%
  • Manufacturing production will grow 4%


The quote, “Never make predictions, especially about the future,” which is attributed to baseball great Casey Stengel, is sage advice, and while it is impossible to know everything that will happen over the next 12 months (I mean, who saw the polar vortex coming last year), manufacturing is starting the year from a very good place. 

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