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Will plastics' New Millennium be titled 2001: An Injection Molding Odyssey? Does the future hold a smooth-talking injection press named HAL, saying: ``Dave, I think it's time to change my hydraulic oil ...''?

Will hydraulic fluid even power those new machines?

The legions are preparing to descend on McCormick Place for the final NPE before the year 2000. Before the show, Plastics News asked officials of companies that make injection presses for predictions of what will be new, not next month, but 20 years down the road.

In 2020, injection molding machines will signal when they need maintenance, they said. Instead of buying specialty machines to do one task, say multimaterial molding, processors will purchase machines that can do it all in one package. It seems certain that electric machines will grow in popularity, but the experts disagree on how much.

``What we will see is a gradual binding together of the different disciplines, like gas-assisted and multicomponent molding,'' said Siebolt Hettinga, chairman of Hettinga Technologies Inc. of Des Moines, Iowa.

Glenn Frohring, who founded Newbury Industries Inc. and now runs Mini-Jector Machinery Corp. in Newbury, Ohio, thinks engineers may find a better way to melt plastic than the reciprocating screw.

That technology, invented in 1952 by William H. Willert, quickly replaced the old plunger method.

``You could speculate that somebody would come up with a way to use microwave heating,'' Frohring said. ``Or maybe there is some way to put an electrical charge or polarize material and heat it by some sort of magnetic force that would create the heat. Of course, you wouldn't get some of the benefits of color mixing and things like that, that work well with the reciprocating screw.''

Richard Kimpel, Van Dorn Demag Corp.'s manager of machine development, thinks microwaves or ultrasonics could help heat resin, to improve its flow into a mold. Kimpel points out that, while the nuts and bolts of injection molding have remained the same, parts keep getting larger.

``Polymers needed to make these parts today require a lot of tonnage to mold,'' he said.

Another possible solution, according to Kimpel: Engineer polymers specifically so they can be run on smaller clamping-force machines.

Hettinga, a guru of low-pressure molding to make big parts, is excited about something called inverted force molding. It would eliminate the pack-and-hold phase of injection. Instead, injection pressure would be greatest when the melt front inside the mold is at its maximum area. Inverted force molding would reduce clamping force requirements by two-thirds, he said.

``This is no longer a pipe dream,'' Hettinga said, adding that materials suppliers and molding companies already are discussing the technology. ``We will break the glass ceiling of vacuum forming, rotocasting and [sheet molding compound], with injection molding. Usually that's the domain of big parts.''

Today, some cars can run for 100,000 miles before needing a tuneup. By 2020, processors will enjoy a similar standard for injection molding machines, said Wolfgang Meyer, president of Battenfeld of America Inc. in West Warwick, R.I.

``Machines have to become maintenance-free and significantly easier to understand and operate. That's definitely a trend that is already going on. That must continue,'' Meyer said.

Meyer also sees gas-assisted molding turning into a common feature. ``Gas-assist at some point in time may be a standard option on a machine, like a core-pull is today,'' he said.

Looking back 20 years, controllers have changed dramatically. In 1977, programmable controls were just beginning to replace solid-state controls, which, in turn, had made the old relay switches obsolete.

Controls, like computers, will continue to evolve. Thomas Richards, manager of software development at Van Dorn Demag, said built-in intelligent controls will predict when a machine needs to be shut down for maintenance. Richards also sees more wireless transfer of information between the machine and its auxiliary equipment. Van Dorn Demag is based in Strongsville, Ohio.

One hot topic: Predicting future demand for electric machines — both fully electric like Cincinnati Milacron Inc.'s Elektra and hybrid machines that use, for example, an electric screw drive but a hydraulic clamp.

Milacron introduced the Elektra at the last NPE, in 1994. Barr Klaus, Milacron's product and development manager for injection molding machinery, thinks all-electrics could capture 50 percent of the market for machines of 1,000 tons or less in 10 years' time.

``All other things being equal, the only thing that's keeping people from buying electric machines is cost, and to some extent the availability of new components to build larger machines,'' Klaus said.

Several factors will bring the price down, including common digital control of servo motors, he said.

Klaus also thinks the popularity of two-platen machines will keep growing. Milacron's Plastics Machinery Group, of Batavia, Ohio, is introducing a two-platen machine at NPE 1997.

Germany's Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH has taken a more-cautious approach to electric machines. Currently, the company favors hybrid machines, said Wilhelm Schröder, managing director. ``Within 10-15 years, I think the electric machine will replace a certain percentage of the hydraulic machines, but certainly not all of it,'' he said.

Injection presses that think ... huge parts molded on relatively small machines ... wireless controllers and ...

Seven irons. That one came from Frohring of Mini-Jector, an avid golfer, who said: ``I normally shoot 85, and if I keep my game the same, I'll shoot my age in the year 2020.''