CHICAGO — It's 2 a.m. at the molding shop and you've got that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. There's a problem with press No. 4. Instead of simply shutting it down, you punch a button on the controller. On a screen appears the face of a technician, who can see you, too — and can view or change the machine functions right on his or her own personal computer.
It's video-conferencing from the shop floor, via small cameras on both ends and a simple Internet hookup.
Three years ago at NPE, Milacron introduced the Xtreem controller, which allowed the machine operator to surf the Web. But the NPE 2000 version goes an important step further, company officials say.
"We have brought the world right to the machine. Now we're going to bring the virtual person right to the machine," said Ron Sparer, manager of control and automation development at the Cincinnati-based machinery manufacturer.
NPE visitors are getting this glimpse of the future at the main Milacron Inc. exhibit (Booths S2949 and S2968). The company is rolling out the Xtreem controller with something called the OneTouch feature.
Milacron also is making machinery news, as the company gives a jolt of electricity to PET bottle manufacturing, with new all-electric injection and blow molding machines.
On the preform side, Milacron is jumping back into a market that it had abandoned in the early 1980s. (Company officials said before NPE they plan to shuttle NPE visitors back and forth by jet to Toledo, Ohio, to see its new E-PET press, which will not be shown in Chicago). On the blow molding side, NPE visitors will see the VersaPET blow molder.
At NPE, the company is showing 37 machines in five separate locations in the South Hall and North Hall (in addition to the main exhibit, see Booths S3368 for Autojectors and ServTek; N5440 for the newly acquired Akron Extruders Inc.; S1149 for D-M-E and Master Unit Die; and S2514 for Northern Supply). Total McCormick Place real estate: 33,000 square feet.
Milacron officials previewed the NPE introductions at a May 25 news conference in Batavia, Ohio, headquarters of the Plastics Technologies Group.
In Chicago this week, every Milacron injection press is equipped with one of the new video-conferencing Xtreem controllers. It will be standard on all Milacron presses.
Running on Windows NT or ST, the Xtreem is now fully personal-computer based. NPE visitors will see the culmination of a decade-long development effort.
Sparer is excited about the prospect of video and direct machine access via a desktop computer from anywhere in the world.
"This is amazing to me because, before if I wanted to do all this, I'd have so many wires I'd trip over them. Now with one wire, one connection, I've got all this action," he said.
"We've gotten away from proprietary controls and software packaging, and gone with standard PC-based controls," Sparer said.
Machines can be networked together easily, both inside a plant and between factories. The Xtreem can communicate with a customer, with plant management or with a technician.
With OneTouch, an operator pushes a button on the controller and brings up Milacron's Internet portal. A service technician pops up on the machine.
During the demonstration at the pre-NPE press conference, the voice of the operator was clear, although the video was a little choppy — but you could see the problem part the operator held up. A split screen showed both the operator and real-time charts of the press settings and production data. The two people can work together to solve the molding problem—a big advance from being forced to put someone on a plane to go to the plant.
The Windows NT version offers more features, such as a VideoPad that lets you create a motion-picture "memo" for each mold setup. After a new mold is set up, a video image of a supervisor comes up and says: "Watch out for cavity 28 — it sticks." The memos also can be recorded in Spanish or other languages.
"Unless you're blind and deaf, you can understand what they're telling you," Sparer said.
Video and voice technology also can give an operator tips during special circumstances, such as an alarm or a fault.
Back in preform biz
Back in 1979, Milacron introduced an injection press to mold PET preforms. It was the dawn of the PET revolution. But after a few years, the company dropped out of the market, leaving Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. to dominate the preform market.
Now Milacron is back. This time, company executives say, they bring something different to the table — all-electric technology. The injection press is paired with an electric blow molding machine from Uniloy, a business Milacron bought two years ago.
"The E-PET preform injection system is the first time anybody has brought all-electric injection technology to the PET market," said Barr Klaus, who has been named general manager of the new Preform Injection Systems Business unit.
The 1998 purchase of the Uniloy blow molding business prompted Milacron officials to re-enter the preform injection press business, according to Bill Gruber, vice president of plastics machinery for North America
The market is more crowded than the early 1980s, with several new systems shown at NPE 2000. But as Gruber pointed out, it's a huge market. Some 350 billion PET containers are manufactured each year, worldwide, a figure growing by 20 billion containers a year, he said. And that does not include the beer bottle market.
PET preforms consume more than 6 billion pounds of resin, which is growing at a 7 percent compounded rate, annually. In some parts of the world, growth hits double digits.
"Milacron simply wants to be part of that growth," Gruber said.
According to officials at the pre-NPE press conference, Milacron's first E-PET, a 440-ton press, running a 48-cavity preform mold, will be running not at McCormick Place but in ... Toledo. Why? Gruber said it was a strategic decision, for competitive reasons and space reasons in Milacron's booth.
"We didn't want to necessarily give our competitors any sneak peak at the technology before we could bring customers in," he said.
During NPE, Milacron will fly customers back and a forth to Toledo, where the machine is running at an engineering firm that is helping Milacron do design work and system integration.
As with its Powerline all-electric presses, Milacron is pitching energy savings.
"It's not uncommon to see 1,000 pounds an hour go through an injection molding machine [making preforms]," Klaus said. "What that means is, this is the mother lode of energy-saving technology."
According to Klaus, an E-PET press consumes 50-70 percent less electricity than a comparable hydraulic machine producing preforms. Since there is no hydraulic fluid to remove from machine and the factory, total energy savings can reach $300,000 over five years, he said.
A 400-ton E-PET running a 48-cavity mold can run 1,200 pounds of PET an hour, or enough for 11,000 preforms. Like the larger-tonnage Powerlines, Milacron is using a two-stage injection system with a fixed-screw extruder feeding a shooting pot, then a plunger to inject the plastic. A separate, in-line packing pot provides pack and hold pressure, freeing the extruder and injection barrel to begin refilling immediately after the shot.
E-PET is paired with the all-electric VersaPET blow molding machine in a two-stage system.
This week in Chicago, a two-stage VersaPET machine from Milacron-Uniloy is blow molding a clear PET milk bottle in two sizes — half-gallon bottles at a rate of about 4,000 an hour and single-serve 16-ounce bottles at 7,800 an hour.
The nationwide dairy-industry consolidation has hurt sales of Uniloy-Milacron's bread and butter: machines and molds to make HDPE milk bottles. But single-serve is growing.
"It's not just in dairy but the whole single-serve market, whether it's dairy, juice, water and teas," said Jeff Newman, Uniloy-Milacron's vice president and general manager for North America.
VersaPET features include a short oven that heats each preform evenly. Special carrying devices move the preforms, in single file and touching each other, continuously through the oven. A patented technology spreads the preforms out again before the blowing process.
Milacron-Uniloy is making the blow molds for the PET systems. Officials said outside mold makers are making the preform molds.
In other all-electric news, Milacron is displaying three Powerline presses, including its largest so far, a machine with 935 tons of clamping force. The big press is outfitted with wide platens to accommodate multicavity molds and large products for automotive, appliance and housewares markets. The company also is showing a 750-ton model and a 550 ton press.
Milacron also will show Fanuc Ltd.'s new Roboshot model, the i Series, molding electric cores on an automated work cell. The electric press uses artificial intelligence to run real-time melt pressure control. The controller also automatically compensates for changes such as screw-tip leakage, barrel wear and inconsistent shot recovery; adjusts velocities and transition points to prevent flash; and changes screw speed to maintain the recovery rate.
Milacron says a Fanuc robot removing parts marks the first use of one of the company's articulating-arm robots on top of an injection molding machine.
Turning to other injection molding machines, Milacron has adopted European-standard injection unit sizes on its two-platen Maxima press, made at Milacron factories around the world.
At NPE, Milacron is unveiling a line of low-priced, U.S.-made presses, reportedly called Vista Edge presses. Details were not available before the show, but the firm said prices start in the low $30,000-range for a 33-ton press.
Milacron is showing off larger platen sizes on its two-platen Maxima press, which is running at NPE. Designers have trimmed five feet off of the footprint of the 550-ton Maxima.
Milacron is rolling out a major redesign of its vertical-clamp Autojectors machines, with the Evolution Series. Improvements include more mold space, improved hydraulics and digital transducers to replace wiring. A new VerteX controller is based on Milacron's Xtreem controller.
All rotary machines now come with light curtains, for worker safety, as a standard feature. Tony Marchelletta, sales manager, said last year half of all Autojectors came with rotary tables.
On the extrusion end, Milacron is debuting a Pinnacle E86 twin-screw extruder with counter-rotating, intermeshing screws. The screw diameter measures 176 millimeters tapering to 86mm, with a length-to-diameter ratio of 27-1. Milacron claims the E86 can produce outputs of 1,600-2,000 pounds an hour of pipe, profiles and siding — similar to a 110-114mm parallel twin-screw extruder. The extruder can process about 1,000 pounds of wood-plastic composites an hour, said Tom Brown, general sales manager for extrusion.
Milacron also is introducing its first U.S.-made grooved feed extruder, a 90mm model.
Milacron also is showing:
A new T-1600 accumulator-head blow molding machine, featuring closed-loop control on the parison push-out speed and accumulator head refill. The Quality Tracking System allows the control to adjust for changes in back pressure and resin viscosity.
D-M-E's Meteor standardized hot-runner mold systems, designed for two- and four-drop configurations; and the Stellar hot-runner system for small, micromolding parts.
A single-step PET blow molder, the Uniloy 750NN. The press is hydraulic, but Newman said the company may come out with an all-electric model in the future. The machine can be configured from two-cavity to 14-cavity molding. Clamp tonnage is 60 tons for injection and blow molding.
A BW 8000 "long stroke" blow molding machine.
A new size, 93mm, in its Atlas parallel twin-screw extruder.