The “Second Machine Age”

By: Tony Deligio 4. March 2015

During the Industrial Revolution, machinery replaced muscle, complementing and augmenting human labor; today as machines increasingly replace minds in the workforce, and human obsolescence becomes possible in some areas, what are the implications for the economy if not our society?


Those insights and questions come from Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, who along with Andrew McAfee authored the “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”.


Brynjolfsson, McAfee and others came together in February to discuss the rise of “smart” machines and their implications for the economy at an event called The Future of Work in the Age of the Machine organized by The Hamilton Project.


Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin kicked off the event with a question regarding that machine replacement of man:


If labor displacing technology does move at a rapid pace and with great potential for economic significance, and if dynamism continues such that technology is deployed, will new industries and new jobs develop that will replace those that have been lost, and will those new jobs be well paid?


A Paradox
Brynjolfsson began his presentation by noting a paradox of today’s economy: American workers have never been more productive with “much of this bounty coming because of some advances in technology” but median income is actually lower now than it was 15-20 years ago. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call this “the great decoupling,” which has been fueled in part by technology.


“We're now in the early stages of a second machine age where machines are also beginning to supplant minds as well as muscles and do a lot of the control functions that used to be integral and only done by humans,” Brynjolfsson said.


Back in 2005, Brynjolfsson noted that there were certain skills considered to be “Uniquely Human”, like:


  • Autonomous mobility and fine motor control
  • Language and complex communication
  • Pattern matching and unstructured problem solving


Fast forward 10 years and we’re in a new era of “machine intelligence”, marked by systems that can interact with the physical world, with vision and other senses as well as fine and gross motor control. In terms of language, machines offer voice recognition, natural language processing and the ability to create narratives.  In terms of problem solving, software platforms can now answer unstructured questions, utilize rule-based analysis and perform pattern recognition and classification.


To illustrate these advances, Brynjolfsson’s slides included everything from Baxter and Siri to Watson and a service called Narrative Science, which uses software to automatically generate news stories for things like company earnings reports.


“Free, Perfect and Instant”
This area of machine intelligence will be one to watch, according to Brynjolfsson, particularly as more and more jobs can be “codified.”


Digital technologies are quite different.  You can take a process and codify it and once you codify it you can digitize it, and once you digitize it you can make a copy or ten copies or a hundred million copies, and each of those copies have three very interesting characteristics.  They can be made at almost zero cost, they are perfect replicas of the original, and they can be transmitted anywhere on the planet more or less instantaneously. Free, perfect, and instant are three adjectives we didn't use to describe most goods and services historically, but they are standard for digital goods and they lead to some weird and sometimes wonderful economics. 


The weird and the wonderful is also widespread:


This isn't just in a few obscure corners of the economy; software is eating the world.  It's coming to retailing, to finance, to manufacturing, to media, more and more parts of the industry. 


Another Tool
Brynjolfsson ended on an optimistic note, however. After all, increased productivity can never be considered a bad thing, and if it comes from machines (designed by humans), those humans are now free to tackle bigger, better problems.


And at the end of the day the most important thing to remember is that technology is and always has been merely a tool.  Now we have more powerful tools than we ever have had before and they have the potential to create enormous wealth with much less need for work.  Some people see that as a bug.  I think we should see it as a feature.  It should be good news.  I think shame on us if we aren't using these amazing tools to create more shared prosperity. 

Injection Molder or Medical Device Supplier?

By: Tony Deligio 25. February 2015

Close inspection of booths at the recent MD&M West trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center revealed an interesting phenomena. Whereas in the past, molders exhibiting at the show might fill their display cases with individual components they’ve made to showcase their capabilities in the medical market, many can now show finished devices they’ve taken on, up to and including, packaging.


At the 2014 edition of MD&M, Nypro Healthcare told me the company was “not just about injection molding anymore” and a year later they backed that up with news that they’ve ramped up cleanroom injection molding in support of a finished medical device.


Custom molder and contract manufacturer, Mack Molding, which traded the computer/business equipment sector for medical back in 2000, announced the addition of another cleanroom of its own to support a move into medical disposables at MD&M.


EJ Bio Med, a division of Eldon James, highlighted its new Denver, Colo. facility, finished in 2013, at MD&M. According to EJ Bio Med, the facility, which offers injection molding, extrusion and assembly, is one of the only U.S. companies that can “manufacture, assemble and package PVC-free tubing and connectors in a single Class 7 cleanroom.”


GW Plastics, Bethel, Vt., used the show to announce the addition of two 240-ton high-speed Netstal injection molding machines and automation to expand its capability in the high-volume disposable medical device market, part of its bid to support the company’s “growing medical device molding and contract assembly business.”


Diversified Plastics, Minneapolis, Minn., announced the installation of a 1,300-sq-ft controlled environment production room at the show, saying the space is available for use in “product assembly and packaging operations with increased cleanliness requirements.”


S.E. Ward Sokoloski, VP and general manager of medical molder Helix Medical, explained to me how his company’s Baldwin Park, Calif. operation achieved FDA registration in support of it manufacturing devices, telling me the company is moving past “just contract molding.” In 2014, the company began fabricating a new medical device used in IVs in six different sizes.


“The response has been overwhelming,” Sokoloski said. “When we got FDA registered in 2014, we opened our doors for customers and told them we only deal with medical. Customers like that. The analogy I use is, ‘Would you rather eat a buffet or a have a specialized dinner?’”


Sounds like more and more processors in the medical space will be cutting other end markets from their molding menus in the near future. (Pictured below, Diversified Plastics new controlled environment manufacturing space.)


Is It Time to Automate Your Insert Molding Job? Answer these questions first

By: Tony Deligio 25. February 2015

Wayne Gibson of automation system designer and manufacturer Pro Systems LLC, Churubusco, Ind., has consistently seen one problem area arise in automating insert molding operations, and he had some simple advice for his audience.


“Let a part be fed they way it wants to be fed,” Gibson said, “I’ve seen cell after cell where there are feeding issues.”


Gibson was a presenter at injection molding and automation supplier Engel’s recent symposium held at its Technical Center in Corona, Calif. Pro Systems has worked with the Austrian machine supplier on a number of installations, with more than a few of Engel’s vertical injection molding machines tasked with insert molding jobs domestically.


Prior to automating, Gibson offered up a list of project assessment questions molders should answer, including:


  • Production volume
  • Molding cycle time and overall cycle time
  • Mold cavity matrix/layout
  • Machine selection
  • Type of runner system


In addition, Gibson said molders looking to build a cell around an insert molding job should consider:


  • How are inserts presented to the cell (bulk, trays, conveyor, tubes, reel, bandolier)
  • Orientation requirements
  • Handling, feeding
  • Measurement/Inspection/Verification requirements


It’s during this process that molders should consider the preferred orientation of the insert and how it needs be positioned within the mold to make sure they’re not, “stepping over dollars to get to pennies.” If tool steel hasn’t been cut, for example, the mold could be designed around the insert’s preferred orientation.


Gibson also noted that some jobs are best suited for the original automation solution, human operators, who, in some instances, can save you some dollars vs. pennies. He recounted a recent job where the cell as required would have cost enough to hire on 10 new operators.


“I’ve been doing automated cells for a long time,” Gibson said, “but there are still a lot of things that only an operator can do.” 

Quoting a Job: the Good, the Bad, the Nonsensical

By: Tony Deligio 18. February 2015

On the short list of regular tasks that are difficult for processors, I’d guess quoting a job has to be up there pretty high. In a perfect world, the ideal design calls for the ideal material and the ideal process. Trials result in perfect product and the job seamlessly shifts into all-out production with zero scrap.


Reality, as I overheard it at last week’s agglomerated trade shows in Anaheim, is something quite different. As I ate lunch, the gentleman next to me tried to walk through a prospective job, repeating the potential client’s requests, which included a series of somewhat puzzling choices.


The part in question could be polyethylene or polycarbonate; machined or molded; with a preferred initial run of 100 pieces.


Not sure how that’s going to work out for either party. How about at your shop? What are some of the crazier/nonsensical quote requests you’ve gotten? What works in quoting, what doesn’t? I’d love to hear you stories, drop me a line or type them into the comments below. Maybe we can make quoting easier for everyone. 

For Repeatable Molding, Add Some Variability

By: Tony Deligio 18. February 2015

The contrast in the two images couldn’t be more stark. On the left, bars marking screw position run jagged, lengthening and shortening the whole way down. On the right, a perfectly straight line can be drawn down the corresponding short shots molded from those varied screw positions.


Joachim Kragl, director of advanced injection molding systems at injection molding and automation supplier Engel, explained the dichotomy between the images at Engel’s recent symposium at its Corona, Calif. technical center, but first he had a question for his audience.


“It’s 2015; all-electric injection molding machines offer precision, but we still get short shots, we still get flash—why?” Kragl asked.


Why indeed; if servo motors can ensure screws travel the virtually same path on every shot, down to the micron, how are different amounts of material injected into the mold?


To answer the question, Engel took an all-electric press and measured the repeatability of its stroke. It found variations of ± 3 µm on stop and ± 10 µm in start positions, which would theoretically result in a variation of .009g in part weight. In reality, however, the shot-to-shot weight variation ranged up to .011g.


Potential culprits are numerous—slippage of check ring on the machine side—with variations in material viscosity playing a role. Those viscosity changes could derive from multiple factors, ranging from inadequate material drying to the presence of regrind to lot-to-lot inconsistencies in resin.


Accepting some variation as an inevitability, Engel sought the best outcome by treating the symptoms of the malady, namely short shots and flash. The answer has been its iQ weight control software, which tracks the changes as they occur and varies the screw position in real time to get the closest to the desired shot volume. (You can read more about the software here).


In practice, the software looks at injection pressure vs. screw stroke, taking a reference pressure curve and splitting it into three areas:


  • Volume variation (as the check ring closes)
  • Changes in viscosity
  • Conformance of pressure profile


The result: molders have been able to reduce shot weight variation by up to 85%, according to Engel, with the biggest potential improvements coming in thin-wall parts. “We tackle the viscosity as well as the volume variation,” Kragl explained after his presentation, noting that dealing with both variables heightens iQ’s effectiveness and is possible because the machine maker can “grab data directly in the machine.”


‘No flipping way!’
Nearly three years since its launch, the technology has seen increasing adoption, according to Kragl, albeit more so in Europe than North America. The fact that it creates a repeatable process by varying that process shot to shot has met some resistance, however.


“If you tell someone your cutover point will not be constant and you don’t want it to be constant, they’d just be shocked because that’s what they point the process toward,” Kragl explained. “It’s got to be a repeatable process and position. We say, ‘You know what? Forget that. In order to make your part consistent, this will move,’ and that scares a lot of people.”


In particular, it scares quality folks in industries like automotive and medical, where meticulous documentation of set-in-stone processes is mandatory. “In most of these discussions, first with the processing guys, they’re like, ‘That’s pretty cool and then next we talk to the quality manager, and they’re like, ‘Hey, no flipping way!’” Kragl said with a laugh. “Part of it is actually finding means to kind of make them feel comfortable, let them know if [the process] changes you get a higher quality part.”


One molder, one shot at a time, it seems Kragl and Engel are winning converts.

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