WELLESLEY, MASS. - The K'95 show last year in Dusseldorf, Germany, was a milestone in Moldflow International Pty. Ltd.'s quest to expand into machinery controllers. Moldflow introduced its Intelligent Process Control at the trade fair last October. The concept is pretty simple: Instead of measuring the injection molding machine, automatically set up and monitor the process with the help of Moldflow software that monitors the performance of the polymer directly.
But nearly a year later, competitors say they are still looking for the meat. Exactly how does IPC work? How will Moldflow implement controller technology - a whole new arena already populated by machinery manufacturers and strong existing suppliers of controllers such as Barber-Colman Co. and Allen-Bradley Co. Inc.?
Intelligent Process Control is a product family that has two components, MF/Optim, which uses computer-aided engineering to set up the machine, and MF/Smart-Mold, which uses CAE to actually control the machine, shot-to-shot.
Currently being tested at 17 sites around the world by 10 molding firms that paid Moldflow $70,000 apiece, MF/Optim is scheduled for release in Septem-ber or October, according to Marc Dulude, president and chief executive officer.
``Optim takes the analysis results that you did in your CAE analysis and it creates a set of initial conditions for the machine that says if you set the machine up this way, you should be very close to running good parts immediately,'' Dulude said.
If Moldflow meets its target for introducing MF/Optim commercially, the company will be on its way to Dulude's goal of a new product every six months. In May, Moldflow introduced its Dynamic Series Release 9.1 package at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Annual Technical Conference.
Moldflow's rival, AC Technol-ogy North America Inc., already follows the twice-a-year release schedule, which has become standard throughout much of the software industry.
Once MF/Optim is issued, MF/SmartMold is certain to pose harder questions that center on what kind of company Moldflow will be in the future. ``The functionality is there, but we have not yet thought through all the product questions, the commercial questions,'' Dulude said.
Dulude last month met with initial IPC users to ask advice on how Moldflow should proceed.
``There are really two possibilities. One is that you use the existing controller of the machine, and all you do is download a signal to the existing controller and you say `carry out this, let's say RAM profile, using this crossover point from filling to packing' and you use the existing controller that's on the machine,'' Dulude said. ``The second possibility is that you circumvent the controller and you put in place your own controller.''
So far, Moldflow has studied both options-linking SmartMold to a unit already on a machine or getting into the controller business.
``We've put significant resources on the IPC products in order to pursue both approaches, and now we're getting to the point where we have to decide, OK, which way are we going to go,'' Dulude said.
Dulude can visualize Moldflow supplying controllers through a Barber-Colman or Allen-Bradley, which already have distribution and support channels in place. A partnership with an injection press manufacturer might be another option.
Dulude declined to talk about potential deals. But machine control presents a huge market, much bigger than Moldflow's current domain of CAE. According to Barber-Colman, the total worldwide market for plastics controllers is about $280 million.
Still to come is a move by Moldflow to computer-aided design products.
Dulude, a former executive at CAD leader Parametric Technology Corp., said about one third of all CAD work goes to designing plastic parts. At the same time, plastic continues to be an alien material to many product designers.
``If we can create a set of products to sit on top of the CAD products, so that now a CAD designer has easy access to an easy-to-use product to allow him to answer some simple questions, we think there's a significant opportunity there for us,'' he said.