Despite plentiful, low-cost labor, companies in Mexico choose to automate their plastics processing operations for many of the same reasons as U.S. firms. For example, many original equipment manufacturers still want quick-mold-change equipment, and pick-and-place robots proliferate in large molding operations such as Zenith Electronics Corp.'s 200,000-square-foot plant in Reynosa, Mexico.
That facility - Zenith's largest molding operation - has 32 Cincinnati Milacron injection molding machines with as much as 1,500 tons of clamping force, all equipped with robots from AEC Inc. for parts removal. That facility produces 2.8 million television cabinets and other parts annually.
Although Zenith has manu-factured in Mexico since 1971 and always has used some auto-mation, company spokesman John Taylor said automating its Mexican facilities has been a priority since the mid-1980s.
``During the last two years we've undergone major re-engineering efforts that have included adding even more auto-mation,'' said Taylor. ``We now have more automation there than in our U.S. plants.''
The company installed a 2,200-foot monorail conveyor at the Reynosa plant to carry finished cabinets to an adjacent building for final assembly of television sets.
Taylor said the primary reasons for automating are to reduce cycle times and manual handling of parts, increase efficiency and improve quality - the same reasons companies in the United States give for implementing automation.
Despite the abundance of cheap labor, Paul Rudzinski, sales manager for Cincinnati Milacron Inc.'s U.S. Plastics Machinery Group in Batavia, Ohio, said he continues to see an increased demand for robotics in certain applications.
``Automation is more a matter of application than labor economics,'' he said.
For that reason, some kinds of manufacturing operations lend themselves better to automation than others. But, as wages increase along with demands for quality, so will the need for automation.
Quality is the primary reason Key Plastics Inc. of Livonia, Mich., put robots on the 10injection molding machines atits new facility in Chihuahua, Mexico.
``The parts produced for our customers require the kind of quality and consistency auto-mation provides,'' said Harry Siegel, director of international operations. ``You can't have five people handling a delicate component and expect high quality going out the door.''
Manufacturers of automated equipment generally see a mix in the types of products a company buys for its Mexican operations. Although some equipment will be totally automatic, much of the machinery purchased, such as that used for mold making, tends to be semiautomatic, said Harry Moser, president of Charmilles Technologies Corp. in Lincolnshire, Ill.
However, U.S. companies operating in Mexico purchase most of the state-of-the-art, automated machinery sold in that country, said Patrick Burnasconi, district sales manager for Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela for Charmilles. Some of those include Motorola, AT&T, Xerox, AMP and Gillette.
The current state of Mexico's economy makes it virtually impossible for some Mexican companies to purchase any equipment.
``Small and medium-sized companies cannot buy at all,'' Burnasconi said. ``Only large Mexican companies or multinational companies are buying state-of-the-art machinery.''
For some applications, particularly in certain assembly operations, the economies of scale for automating are not there yet. However, many other types of secondary operations lend themselves quite well to automation.
Fanuc Robotics North America has been successful in Mexico selling its robots for spray paint booths for large components such as automotive parts or television cabinets, or for applying electromagnetic and radio-frequency-interference shielding. Richard Estes, general manager for Fanuc Robotics in Mexico City, said he has done more business in the first quarter of this year than he did in the pastfour years combined.
``Mexican companies who produce for the domestic marketplace are dead,'' said Estes. ``Companies that export their products to the United States, however, are strong and viable. Exporting is crucial to the survival of Mexican companies.''
For that reason, quality looms as a large issue.
``Companies who manufacture for the Mexican marketplace can get away with producing inferior products,'' Estes said. ``But if their goods are going to the United States, the quality must be there or the products won't sell.''
Finishing operations are a strong area for robotics in Mexico. Carplastic, a Ford Motor Co. molding plant in Monterrey, Mexico, recently added four Fanuc robotic paint lines for painting facias. Carplastic now operates a total of six robotic paint lines, said Estes.
Conair Group of Franklin, Pa., has had a presence in Mexico since the mid-1960s and continues to be a major player in a market it sees as a growing one, primarily among U.S. companies there, said Jim Healy, vice president of sales and marketing.
Healy said it does not matter what country you are in - getting the operator out of the equation is crucial to maintaining cycle times, increasing productivity and improving consistency.
The cost of labor aside, consistency in the manufacturing operation is the primary reason for automating with robotics on injection molding machines, according to Steve Petrakis, vice president of sales and marketing, applications automation, for AEC Inc., headquartered in Wood Dale, Ill.
``Whether you're [in the United States] or in Mexico, people are not consistent,'' Petrakis said.
``The larger the parts, such as those Zenith manufactures at Reynosa, the more robotics comes into play.''
Tom Graham, a UT Automo-tive support manufacturing engineer in El Paso, Texas, said, ``Once we automate a process, we have control that we didn't have with a manual operator.
UT Automotive operates a large molding plant in Ju rez, Mexico.
``It's much easier to adjust a process controller on a machine than it is to tell an operator they have to change the way they're doing something,'' he said.