Like death and taxes, the year 2000 is certain to come, but will the new century bring about chaos at plastics factories? Will computer-controlled injection molding machines malfunction — or simply stop running — when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999?
The answer is a qualified ``no,'' according to companies that supply machines, controllers and software that ties all the information together for managers. The plastics machines should keep on running. But the suppliers caution all processors to look closely, right now, at all functions that track the time and date — especially process monitoring systems that control orders, shipping and machine scheduling.
In most cases, the machine controller should not pose a problem, said Jerry Baur, vice president and sales manager of Mattec Corp. of Loveland, Ohio.
``All that controller does is feed information: Here's your temperature, here's your pressure. It doesn't have a time-and-date function. But it's really more critical on the data collection systems than it would be on the controller,'' he said.
Checking a business for the ``millennium bug'' is not something to put off, they warn.
``It's kind of like going to the doctor for a shot. You've got to do it, but nobody likes doing it,'' said Charlie Martin, sales manager for American Leistritz Extruder Corp.
So far, worried industry executives aren't burning up the phone lines to most machinery companies, or to controller suppliers Allen-Bradley Co. Inc. and Barber-Colman Co. However, some customers have been calling their process monitoring system suppliers.
Suppliers expect the number of worried-customer calls to pick up as they hear and read more about the issue.
Expect to hear that phrase — time-and-date function — a lot as the 1990s wind down. If a computer system's date code runs on only two digits, the computer could end up reading 2000 as 1900. That, in turn could cause a system to crash, or even wipe out data.
Controllers, for the most part, just gather information as the machine runs.
``If a system is simply displaying time of day, then there's no reason to worry about it,'' said Thomas Richards, manager of controls and electrical development at injection press builder Van Dorn Demag Corp. ``It's when you begin to do things with the real-time information that problems can arise.''
Those tasks include production scheduling, automatic startup and other programs that must compare two dates, or subtract one date from another.
``The first thing that people need to be aware of is, what does your controller do and is it compliant with the year 2000,'' Richards said.
Ron Sparer of Cincinnati Milacron Inc. said, ``The rule of thumb is, if you're doing a lot of automated scheduling, based on what a controller is telling you, then you'd better pay attention.''
But exposure to risk is limited for molders that do not do automated scheduling, said Sparer, Milacron's manager of controls and automation.
Some huge industries, such as banks and airlines that run on mainframe computers written on COBOL, could face a crisis. Hundreds of millions of lines of COBOL will have to be changed from two digits to four.
``It has profound implications. For some companies, it could be very, very expensive, or even put them out of business,'' said Ernie Hafner, supervisor of engineering computer systems for Engel North America in Guelph, Ontario.
Fortunately, COBOL is not an issue with most plastics molding factories, or their machines. For systems that run off a personal computer, machinery representatives advise a simple test.
``I tell my customers if they're really worried about it, have a New Year's Eve party a little early,'' said Milacron's Sparer. Set the system's clock ahead to the final day of 1999. Then: ``Let it rip and see what happens.''
Steve DeLonge, who handles market development for Allen-Bradley's plastics machinery controllers, gives this advice to processors: ``They need to go walking through their plant and take an inventory of control equipment they've got running. Keep in mind that there could be time-and-date functions. A good first step is asking, `What do I have in my plant that could be susceptible?''
DeLonge said big companies already have assigned the millennium bug issue to their director of management information systems, the people in charge of internal computer systems. Smaller firms don't have that luxury.
What type of company is most at risk?
``The people that don't have a full-blown MIS department and are using computers to automate their business functions,'' DeLonge said. ``For example, say a company has a few clerks to run an accounts payable/accounts receivable/payroll package — particularly if they're using a custom-kind of software or software that has been customized from an off-the-shelf package, and that is more than a couple years old.''
Often, such software has been customized by outside consultants, he added.
Allen-Bradley of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, and Barber-Colman of Loves Park, Ill., both have reviewed their plastics product lines. Both say they anticipate no problems.
Allen-Bradley has used four digits since it began employing a clock function on its plastics controllers in the mid-1980s. The same holds true for Barber-Colman and its line of Maco controllers.
This year, Barber-Colman tested each of its products, said Bart Polizotto, product line manager for automation systems.
``We knew there were four digits, and that it wasn't going to be a problem, but based on the customer requests we had, we went ahead and tested it,'' he said. Polizotto also recommends that processors run their own tests by setting the date ahead.
Machinery makers contacted for this story said they do not expect many problems.
Milacron no longer makes its own controls. In 1995, Milacron sold its Electronic Systems Division to Vickers Inc., which supplies controllers back to the Cincinnati-based machinery company. Sparer said Milacron machine controllers do contain some basic time-and-date functions, but ``it tends not to be mission-critical stuff.''
``Basically we've looked into it on our microprocessor-based controls, going all the way back to 1985,'' Sparer said. ``Nothing catastrophic happens. The machine keeps running. The worst we've seen happen is there's some software that might monitor production time, and it tends to get confused from 1999 to 2000 just on New Year's Eve. Once you switch over, it's OK.''
Milacron's Plastics Machinery Group is based in Batavia, Ohio.
Engineers at Van Dorn Demag in Strongsville, Ohio, are checking out the firm's entire controller product line, going back to the late 1970s, but Richards said all of the firm's modern-day controllers have built-in compliance.
American Leistritz Extruder of Somerville, N.J., is converting its control system to Windows NT, which should have no problems with the year 2000, according to Martin. But older packages may.
``It's going to require a service call for us to go in and update their software,'' he said.
American Leistritz plans to notify customers in late 1997 or early 1998, Martin said.
Vertical injection press builder Autojectors Inc. of Avilla, Ind., through Group Dekko Services, plans a formal test of all controllers next year, said Chris Edwards, director of information services.
Mark Read, controls engineering manager at Engel North America, said Engel is sending out a letter explaining the issue to concerned customers who call.
``It just states basically that the machine controller is not going to be affected by the year 2000 switchover. That's really what all our customers are looking to find out. What's probably going to have the most impact is companies that have plantwide monitoring,'' Read said.
Indeed, the millennium bug appears to be a much bigger issue for suppliers of process-monitoring, or supervisory, software.
Jonathan Zook, product manager of Syscon-PlantStar, recommends a more-detailed test. Set the date to 2000, reboot the computer and check the date again.
``You want to try that also with the year 2001, and it's been suggested that you try it for every year up to the year 2050,'' he said.
Zook said there are no problems with three Syscon products now offered: Snapshot, Portrait and Panorama.
``Our current line of products is year 2000 compliant. With the previous line of products, we are going to be undergoing some testing, with the intention of releasing a full report to all of our clients by the end of this year,'' he said.
The latest company newsletter explains Syscon's strategy. Zook said the firm already has received ``quite a few'' calls from plastics customers, mainly large companies. Indeed, many large plastics molders are requesting a written statement from suppliers guaranteeing that their systems are OK.
Zook said older PlantStar systems — those say, 10 years old — could have a problem. Even if the software is 2000 compliant, the older computers it runs on might not be, he said. In that case, replacing the personal computer might be the best solution.
``We will not only retest our current line of products, but we will go back over the older line of products and see if there's any problems there,'' Zook said.
Zook said it's better to be safe than sorry.
``The real key is, regardless, you should probably check,'' he said.
Syscon-PlantStar is a division of Syscon International Inc. of South Bend, Ind.
Eric Thiemann, president of Cincinnati-based Hunkar Laboratories Inc. said Hunkar is planning to put detailed year 2000 information on its Web site (http://www.hunkar.com) once it collects more information. The company also is responding to specific questions from customers about its products, which run on Windows 95, Windows NT and DOS.
Thiemann cautioned plastics processors about trying patchwork solutions. Companies should be sure to incorporate flexibility into their system for future needs.
``Customers have time to select a permanent solution and they should also use this as a good time to consider upgrading their present system,'' he said.
More than 700 U.S. customers use Mattec's process-monitoring systems. Lots of them already have contacted Mattec for reassurance, said Baur.
``It started out this year with maybe one or two calls, but starting in the summer it's been calls on a daily basis,'' he said. ``What most customers are requiring is some kind of documentation from Mattec that our systems are year 2000 compliant.''
Mattec's current product — aptly named ProHelp Millennium — can track a five-year summary of plant operations, broken down weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually.
``It uses the calendar dates on an awful lot of its reporting features,'' Baur said.
ProHelp Millennium, and earlier products ProHelp 1000 and ProHelp, are year 2000 compliant.
``Also, our hardware — the microprocessors that collect the data off the machine — are year 2000-compliant,'' Baur added.
ProHelp runs on Unixware, which is part of the Unix operating system. Baur said Unixware has four digits for the year function.
Everyone agrees it is important to test systems now, and not wait until the last minute.
Allen-Bradley's DeLonge said off-the-shelf 2000 conversion packages will become available, but he said too many variables exist in computers to make them 100 percent reliable. One big variable: Each computer has its own system that separates hardware from the operating system and final applications, and translates information between them.
No single conversion package will provide a magic solution.
``I wouldn't bet my accounts receivables on it,'' DeLonge said.