Cellular phones have become a common sight at plastics shows such as NPE, linking busy executives to the world. In the next century, even the machines will have cell phones.
NPE 1997 in Chicago next month stands as the last NPE before the year 2000. As the show draws near, Plastics News asked officials from a sampling of companies that make robots, chillers, dryers and other types of auxiliary equipment to predict what their industry will look like in 2020.
By then, said Ray Kelly of Conair Group, equipment suppliers will keep tabs on machine performance using wireless technology.
Twenty years from now, ``You're going to see wireless communications dominating the factory floor,'' he said. ``That'll certainly give the equipment manufacturers the capability to monitor the equipment from their remote service location.''
Kelly, Conair's manager of advanced technology development, said the impact will be revolutionary: ``Right now a customer calls our service department and he starts explaining what he thinks he sees, but in the future we'll just tap in and analyze it. Or even better, our service department will call them and say, `Change that filter.'''
Steve Maguire also thinks wireless technology is inevitable.
``In 20 years you won't see computers wired together. You won't see machines wired together. They'll all just talk to each other using wireless transmission,'' said the president of Maguire Products Inc. in Media, Pa.
The company makes gravimetric blenders, liquid color pumps and material loading systems.
In addition to being wireless, equipment will keep getting smaller and more efficient, company officials speculate.
``In general, equipment will downsize,'' Maguire said. ``[Resin] receivers will become smaller and load more frequently. All equipment will become more compact and more serviceable. Regardless of how big the factory is, they'll move toward smaller pieces of equipment.''
Some auxiliary futurists think pre-packaged systems will become more common. Such a system combines, for example, an injection molding machine with all auxiliaries already hooked up, delivered to the customer in a complete package. Pre-assembled packages exist today, but many molders still buy the machine and then select their own auxiliaries to go on it.
Tom Rajkovich, president of Comet Automation Systems Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, said the more-integrated approach is already becoming more popular. He gives part of the credit to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Communication Protocol.
SPI developed an industrywide standard electronic interface governing how controllers for primary machines talk to controllers running auxiliaries. The protocol cuts across machines from all manufacturers. It replaces the old hodgepodge of customized protocols.
``What you're probably going to see with auxiliaries is integration with the molding machine,'' Rajkovich said. ``With the advent of the SPI protocol, I can see that we'll be supplying built-in dryers, loaders, granulators, mold temperature controllers.''
Customers like an integrated package, delivered pre-wired and assembled, because the primary machinery maker has complete system responsibility, he said.
In future years, Rajkovich thinks the integration could extend to auxiliaries that run ``using the power of the injection molding machine's control, instead of having all these duplicated controls.''
Still, it remains open to question whether molders in 2020 will be running equipment with a ``supercontroller'' embedded in the injection press but with no separate controllers on the auxiliaries.
Maguire, for one, said: ``I don't think that systems will come all packaged in the future. Often, you see the package includes equipment that really isn't state of the art or that isn't exactly suited to what the processor wants to do.''
What is certain is that machines will become simpler to set up and run, executives say. That trend extends to robots.
``Look at your desktop PC. I think you're going to see robots following that same trend: Easier to use. More powerful. The performance is going to go up and the price is going to come down,'' said Jim Schmitz, sales and applications manager at robot-maker AEC/Application Automation.
Although more plastics processors are using industrial robots, Schmitz said robots remain a ``concept sell.'' That means AEC and other robot makers still have to convince a new customer that automation makes sense, that it will pay off.
``In 20 years, that's going to be significantly different,'' he said, adding that robots will be standard equipment, just like a chiller or hopper loader is today.
Robots also will be able to change end-of-arm tooling automatically, to keep pace with new quick-mold-change systems, Schmitz said. AEC is based in Wood Dale, Ill.
Robots often work alongside conveyors — in itself a changing technology. Jean Chambers, sales manager of Dynamic Conveyor Corp. in Muskegon, Mich., said easier-to-use programmable logic controllers are becoming more integrated into conveying systems. She also thinks more suppliers will join Dyna-Con to offer conveyors made of plastic components instead of steel or aluminum.
Maguire thinks you might not see many hopper-mounted resin loaders in 2020. Instead, molders will use either big, centralized loading systems or midsize machines that can serve a smaller number of machines at once. In 1996, Maguire Products introduced a vacuum loader that can handle as many as eight injection molding machines.
Kelly, at Franklin, Pa.-based Conair, foresees another type of integration.
``Within the last few years, we saw the proliferation of combining dryers and conveying systems. Any time you can combine some product functionalities, you're going to increase the reliability of the equipment,'' Kelly said.
Kelly also thinks resin drying is ripe for new, energy-efficient technology, such as microwaves or infrared heat.
Cooling technology, as in chillers for mold cooling, also is evolving. The big change is in compressors, according to Kevin McJoynt, AEC/Application Engineering's marketing manager for water products.
``One thing you'll see at NPE, even this year, is a move toward rotational technology in compressors,'' McJoynt said.
The rotational motor has fewer moving parts and is more reliable than the traditional reciprocating compressor, which has pistons moving up and down, he said. Also known as scroll compressors, the technology is used in small chilling units.
Another technology, called the screw compressor, is finding uses in very large chillers. Although McJoynt said high cost has kept screw compressors out of chillers for plastics processing, he expects that to change.