What has the computer wrought since 1989? More precise machines, faster-than-ever product development and now, E-commerce.
Injection molding presses, the most common type of plastics equipment, are more accurate and repeatable than ever—largely through the advent of closed-loop control, which automatically corrects machine variances, improved temperature control and mechanical advances such as proportional hydraulic valves.
During much of the 1980s and early 1990s, controller makers touted processing speed, speed, speed. A new controller was milliseconds faster than its predecessor. Then a few years ago, the marketing focus switched from pure speed to making controllers easier to use.
``We're getting to the point where the electronics themselves, the processors, are faster than the hydraulics,'' said Bart Polizotto, product manager of automation systems products at Barber-Colman Co. in Loves Park, Ill.
Polizotto said future controllers will feature wireless communication, and the ultimate ease-of-use tool: voice recognition.
The big thrust now is making controls ``open'' so they can be easily linked to other systems, said Steve DeLonge, plastics business manager at controller supplier Allen-Bradley Co. Inc., in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.
``It's changing from a dedicated operator interface into an open-architecture, PC-type box,'' DeLonge said.
All the talk of openness has prompted computer experts to predict a plug-and-play future, where a processor could pick and choose any one company's controller and plantwide monitoring system and connect them with a few simple steps. But there are plenty of skeptics.
``It's still in its infancy. There's still a lot of work to do in this area,'' said Jeff Kolosky, manager of electrical engineering and advanced control systems at HPM Corp., which makes injection molding machines and extruders.
``If your computer on your desk crashed when you were typing a letter, you could just start all over again. You'd reboot. But these machines have to run all the time. You can't afford downtime,'' Kolosky said.
Management information systems are already here. A decade ago, machine controllers merely collected data. In today's injection molding shop, top executives want access to information directly from the molding machines and auxiliary equipment. In many plants, job scheduling is done by a computer. Customers can log in to check on orders.
Machine controls have advanced dramatically, but the really exotic stuff is still to come, according to controls gurus.
``The remote diagnostics area is really going to take off. Electronics are getting to the point where they can do that now,'' DeLonge said. Today, that means technicians at one site dialing up a machine in another.
But DeLonge can envision the machine, using artificial intelligence, diagnosing its own problems, even knowing ahead of time when a part will fail. Using the Internet, the machine would order a spare part automatically, request a service call — even buy more resin.
At least one machine already can access the Internet. Cincinnati-based Milacron Inc. demonstrated its Camac Xtreem at K'98 in Dusseldorf, Germany, last year. An operator instantly can pull up information from a resin firm's Web site, right at the machine.
Open architecture already has paid dividends in the decade-long global computer protocol effort. Also at K '98, the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and Euromap, the European factory equipment trade group, wrapped up the SPI/Euromap Data Exchange Interface. It runs injection molding data through a remote file network running on standard factory software.
BC—before computers—plastic parts were made with lots of trial and error. A pattern maker built a model. Molds got re-jigged. Computers give part designers detailed information well before the mold is cut.
``About the late '80s, we started to see some real interesting examples of 3-D solid modeling, where you could begin at some level to put together an actual, physical prototype,'' said rapid prototyping consultant Terry Wohlers, who runs Wohlers Associates Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo. ``Prior to that it was all just lines on a drawing.''
Creating parts is faster. Today it has to be, since in some markets, such as electronics, product life cycles are measured in months, not years.
``Companies are under enormous pressure to turn out new products in a quick period of time,'' Wohlers said. ``Computer-aided design, solid modeling, rapid prototyping — it's allowed you to prototype very easily and very often,'' Wohlers said.
Even before the prototype stage, software simulates how a mold will fill. Designers can create a mold, run plastic through it at different pressures and temperatures, and see what happens — all on a computer screen.
``A lot of the problems with a part happen way up front in design,'' said Roland Thomas, vice president of research and development at Moldflow Corp. of Lexington, Mass.
Thomas said that, through the early 1990s, Unix workstations commonly were used to run simulation software. Personal computers have come to their full potential in the past three or four years, he said.
The most recent big leap forward for mold-fill software makers is 3-D solid modeling, he said. ``Finally now, we have enough data. You know really what this part is, you're not partially representing it. You have more good knowledge of the shape and volume of this part,'' he said.
C-Mold, of Louisville, Ky., has focused on selling easy-to-use, low-priced simulation software, such as 3D Quickfill and Dr. C-Mold. ``We want to bring this technology to the point where everybody can run it from the desktop,'' said Peter Medina, senior vice president of sales and marketing.
Medina said the Internet has turned C-Mold, a 100-employee company, into a global player. For the past several years, the firm has offered a free trial version via its Web site. More than 10,000 people have downloaded C-Mold software, from companies as far away as the Middle East, China and South America.
It's really true what they say about the Net, he said: ``We can be everywhere, 24 hours a day.''
Plastic processors also are using the Internet to sell. The easiest call is consumer products firms selling standard items. Rubbermaid runs a virtual Everything Rubbermaid store section on its site. In February, Tupperware's stock jumped 23 percent after it revealed plans to sell online.
M&Q Plastic Products may not be as big as those housewares giants, but the company learned the power of the Web firsthand.
M&Q, of North Wales, Pa., is the largest U.S. producer of convoluted tubing for the car industry. Also known in the trade as split loom, or snake skin, this is the black tubing that protects bundles of wires around a car's engine.
In January, M&Q shipped $68.40 worth of the stuff to a whole new market — NASA, which needed it to protect cables on a telescoping antenna on the space shuttle.
How did NASA make the connection? NASA jet propulsion technicians typed ``split loom'' into an Internet search engine. Bam! They were at M&Q's Web site.
``Now, our products are out of this world,'' quipped Tim Blucher, M&Q's director of sales and marketing.
Computers made it happen.