AKRON, OHIO (Aug. 27, 11 a.m. EDT) — Hybrid vs. all-electric has become the debate in injection molding circles, as press manufacturers prepare for two big upcoming trade shows, K 2001 and Plastics USA.
The rhetoric is grand. Barr Klaus of Milacron Inc. has become a quote-smith.
“I still stand by my earlier predictions. I said that [for presses] between 80 and 1,500 tons, 70 percent of the market will be converted [to all-electric] in Japan, the U.S. and Europe by 2005. I think we're on track to get there,” he said.
“Mass hypnotism,” responds Robert Schad of Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd.
On the all-electric side, boosters say their technology marks a historic moment in the plastics industry. Some even compare it to the advent of the reciprocating screw, predicting all-electrics will wipe out hydraulically powered machines just like the screw did to the old plunger machines decades ago. Electric presses use much less energy — 30 to even 80 percent less — depending on the part being molded because servomotors run only when actual machine movement is required. With no hydraulic fluid nor the attendant network of hoses, tubes and valves, all-electrics run cleaner and quieter and move with superprecision.
“Repeatability, accuracy of movement, precision molding and energy are the four reasons why a customer will buy an electric machine,” said Jerry Johnson of JSW Plastic Machinery Inc.
Companies that make hybrid machines beg to differ. Hybrids use hydraulic power to run some functions and electric motors to run others. (The word hydraulic in this story refers to both of the common types of injection presses: those with a direct hydraulic clamp and those with a toggle-style clamp driven by hydraulics). Claims about the all-electrics are overblown, according to the hybrid pushers. They say customers will balk at paying a higher price premium to buy all-electrics, which can range from 15-20 percent higher for smaller machines and up to 40 percent higher for midsized and larger presses.
Both sides argue back and forth about precision and repeatability.
Even simple-to-understand concepts are open to debate. As to the clean-running argument, hybrid makers point out that electrics do have toggles and ball screws — mechanical components lubricated with oil or grease.
Schad, the charismatic leader of Husky, in Bolton, Ontario, grabbed honors for best sound bite at NPE last year, when he dismissed the all-electric hubbub as “mass hypnotism.” Interviewed earlier this month, he said: “The all-electric has been way overblown, especially as it's always been on a toggle machine. They are making statements on cleanliness which are not sustainable because a toggle machine has linkages that have grease.”
Schad's remark shows that, although the hybrid/all-electric battleground is rife with complex charts comparing energy consumption and molding accuracy, much of the debate is more basic: injection speed; shot capacity; the ability of electric motors to do pack and hold; ball screw life; and core pull.
Those questions are being raised by Husky and several machine builders in Europe, where all-electrics have been slow to catch on.
Although electric servo motors swept through the machine-tool industry in the 1970s, their application for the start-and-stop, quick-cycling process of injection molding is only about a decade old. Hydraulic power dates to the early days of injection molding, when workers hand-pumped the machine to build oil pressure. Soon, automatic accumulators were added, and accumulator technology progressed until today, when hydraulic presses can move with rocket speed.
Hybrid advocates say hydraulic power is proven, versatile and adaptable. Pumping oil through hoses is the classic method to create linear motion. Electric motors use rotary motion, so they work best on circular movements such as electric screw rotation. That leads to this common refrain: by blending hydraulic and electric, hybrids use the “best type of power for each axis” of motion.
However, it is clear that all-electrics are not just a passing fad. In Japan, all-electrics have become the dominant type of machine, driven by high energy costs, strict laws about hydraulic fluid disposal and insurance regulations that limit the use of the flammable fluid. In the United States, they account for about 20-25 percent of all injection presses sold, according to machinery company officials.
Milacron Inc., the largest U.S. player, says all-electrics account for about half of all injection presses it sells. The Cincinnati-based company has invested more than $15 million since the mid-1980s to develop all-electric presses.
One point appears certain: All-electric technology threatens to make major inroads against hydraulics in smaller-tonnage machines.
“Quite frankly, if I were a molder and was going to buy a 200-ton press or a 300-ton press today, I wouldn't even consider a hydraulic machine. Because five years from now that hydraulic machine's value is going to be zero,” said Tim Glassburn, vice president of Toshiba Machine Co. America.
This from a man whose company still sells hydraulics in those sizes! But several Japanese companies are doing away with hydraulics on the smaller machines. JSW's plans are to obsolete its 55-, 85- and 110-ton hydraulic toggle machines next year, instead offering only electric in those sizes, said Johnson.
Toshiba has dropped hydraulics on its 30- and 60-ton presses, Glassburn said.
Even Schad concedes the point. “The further down you go, the more electric machines make sense. For example, under 100 tons, I think the electric machine is a great system,” he said.
The battleground: larger machines
But to win the battle on, say, a press with 1,000 tons of clamping force, Schad argues that hybrids make more sense — specifically, of course, Husky's Hyelectric press with hydromechanical clamp and electric screw drive.
For buyers, the price premium for all-electrics increases as the machines get bigger, mainly because very large electric motors, ball screws and other components become more expensive — if they are available at all. One common practice for big electrics is to use two servo motors, further jacking up the price.
Some all-electric backers will publicly concede that — with today's technology — there is an upper-end size limit where hydraulic power makes more economic sense.
Despite that fact, the sizes of all-electrics creep ever higher:
* Ube Industries Ltd. has the biggest press to date: the 1,550 tonner that ran last year at NPE. The company has sold about 10 of those giant Ultimas, according to Taku Tawarada, marketing and sales manager at Ube Machinery Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.
* Milacron ran a 935-ton Powerline at NPE. Klaus, vice president of technology, said the company plans to sell a 1,125-ton press in the future.
* Japan Steel Works Ltd. is shipping its first 720-ton electric to a U.S. customer this month. Johnson said JSW plans to offer a 940-ton press in the United States in early 2002, and go up to 1,430 tons by the end of 2002. Johnson confirmed a March report in Japan Industrial News that JSW is working on a 1,760-ton all-electric.
* Niigata Engineering Co. Ltd.'s largest press has 1,500 tons of clamping force.
* Toshiba will introduce a 610-ton all-electric press at Plastics USA.
* Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. goes up to 605 tons in an all-electric.
Officials of MHI Injection Molding Machinery Inc., which sells Japan-built Mitsubishi presses in the United States, revealed that Mitsubishi is taking a different approach to larger tonnage presses. At NPE 2000, Mitsubishi rolled out its first all-electric presses, of 390, 500 and 610 tons. But the company has decided not to push the envelope further.
“Future planning for larger machines is to go with a hybrid design,” said Tom Geedes, general manager in the engineering department at MHI in its U.S. unit MHI Injection Molding Machinery Inc. The first will be a 950-ton press, to be shown in a September open house in Japan. “Ours is basically going to be an electric machine but with a hydromechanical clamp design,” Geedes said.
Europe is lagging
There is plenty of skepticism in Europe about all-electric machines, for good reason — machinery makers there say niche molders, such as companies making medical parts in clean rooms, are about the only customers who ask about them.
Earlier this summer, members of the trade press raised the issue during pre-K news conferences in Germany and Switzerland. For reporters accustomed to hearing oveheated reports about the “electric revolution,” listening to Helmar Franz of Demag Ergotech GmbH was like bathing in ice cubes.
Franz said all-electrics have no momentum, no “dynamism” in Europe — nor in the United States. “The only dynamism there is, is in Asia,” he said. He added that the machines have only “limited applications” when compared to a hybrid.
“In Europe, all-electrics do not play a major role,” said Franz, executive managing director of the Schwaig, Germany-based press maker. He said molders in the Old World want to see if the technology is proven and if it is worth the extra cost. “The European injection molding sector is very demanding and conservative.”
Figures from K show organizers back that up. Their data shows that only about 800 all-electric machines have been sold in Europe — not even one-tenth of the 10,000 machines sold worldwide in the past 15 years.
Franz, like many other German machinery officials, talks a lot about the high price of all-electrics.
“For each motion, there is one motor, and that costs money. And that is the problem of these machines,” he said.
Demag, which is pushing its hybrid line of El-Exis machines, is working on a prototype all-electric. But Franz said if it becomes commercial, the company probably would build the machine in India to keep costs down.
In Munich, Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH is showing a special hybrid press for K 2001, the Eltec, that requires just two liters of oil to finish off the clamping. Electric power runs other functions, using six servomotors.
Wilhelm SchrÃ¶der, chairman of Krauss-Maffei's managing board, was more charitable toward the all-electrics concept than Franz.
“We don't think that it will be as quick to come to Europe as it has been in the U.S. and Asia,” he said. “But we assume that at least a certain part of our hydraulic machines will be replaced by the electrics.”
Even officials of Switzerland's Netstal-Maschinen AG — which will introduce an all-electric for optical disc molding — still like the super-fast injection speeds and pricing of their accumulator-boosted presses. “For an electric machine, you have to power every axis of the machine with a separate motor. That keeps it expensive,” said Robert Weinmann, director of research and development for the company in NÃ¤fels.
Dieter Klug, president and chief executive officer, said all-electrics are 20-40 percent more expensive to build than standard machines. If a supplier is unable to pass those costs along, he said, “You will get blood-red figures.”
That kind of price talk irks people like William Ball, who sells Niigata machines as vice president of Daiichi Jitsugyo (America) Inc. “We're not arguing about price. I will say this: That as the world converts — and it will — to electric machines, the price difference will evaporate,” he said in an interview at Daiichi offices in Itasca, Ill.
Niigata Engineering Co. Ltd. is the exact opposite of the Europeans and Husky. The Japanese company is going all the way, electrically speaking. Today if you want to buy a hydraulically powered toggle-clamp Niigata, you have to special order one, Ball said.
Unfortunately for Niigata, JSW and the others, Japanese molding machinery has yet to penetrate European countries, with the exception of England. Germans may enjoy sushi, but they buy German-made injection presses.
“To get into England, it's much more liberal. They'll buy from anybody, it doesn't matter,” said Glassburn of Toshiba. “But you try to sell a Japanese product in Germany, you might as well forget it.”
German customers suffer from “invented here syndrome,” said Niigata's Bill Ball.
“We can dance around the issue all we want. There has been historically a huge debate between the Germans and the Japanese as to who is the more technically competent,” he said.
Ball thinks German machinery makers “are not about to admit they missed the boat” on the all-electric machine, and are buying time while they catch up.
So why haven't most German machinery makers embraced all-electrics?
At pre-K news conferences, several machinery executives mentioned the large number of patents held by Japanese electric-press pioneer Fanuc Ltd. They said it is possible to get around the patents — but at added cost.
The lack of real competition from Japanese suppliers in Europe is another big reason.
“Since they are less present in Europe, there was less pressure from the Japanese. And most of the European manufacturers said, 'Well, we really don't need the electric machines, so as long as we don't build it, it will not come,'” said Helmut Eschwey, chairman of SMS Plastics Technology, which makes Battenfeld injection presses.
Eschwey's sta-tus as president of K 2001 gives his words extra weight.
Battenfeld goes against the grain in Germany, having introduced an all-electric back in 1992. At Battenfeld's pre-K show news conference in Berlin, Eschwey chided his European counterparts just now coming out with electrics.
“Some of our competitors approached this subject rather half-heartedly, saying, 'Well, we need an electric machine so let's put a project together.' And then there are those who really believe in electric machines. They will do the best,” he said.
Reinhard Gruber, business leader for electric presses at Battenfeld, said European molders buy electric for a specific application. In the United States, rising energy prices are spreading the technology into general-purpose molding. “We have not reached that stage yet in Europe. This is not a tendency here,” he said at the Berlin news conference.
Outdated arguments from both camps?
Both sides complain about outdated criticisms made by the other side.
Hydraulic systems have improved dramatically through the use of servo valves, variable-speed motors and improved types of displacement pumps and other technology. Husky's Schad said people who push the all-electrics ignore that. He said modern hydraulics can shut off when no machine motion is going on, leading to substantial energy savings.
“You can do very similar things that you can do with an all-electric machine, with a hydraulic machine,” Schad said.
For their part, the all-electric people say hybrid supporters ignore an increase in the sizes of commercially available servomotors. Makers of electric motors and drive components now recognize plastics machinery is a market, so they are coming out with targeted products, said Johnson.
“Whereas back in the 1980s, we were taking a standard servo and putting it on our machine. So that's why, back in the early '90s, we only had three sizes to offer: a 60-, 95- and a 120-ton. Because that's all the servos that were available,” Johnson said in an interview at JSW's office in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Milacron started making its own all-electric presses in 1994. Milacron also sells Fanuc's Roboshot machines. Klaus said Milacron uses large Fanuc servomotors for its bigger-tonnage Powerlines. “Nobody else has got anything that big,” he said.
Design changes can reduce the size of the electric motor needed. For example, Milacron went to a two-stage injection process, with a fixed screw feeding a shooting pot, then a separate plunger ramming the shot home. On big machines, Klaus said the traditional reciprocating screw would require huge — and expensive — roller or ball screws to convert the rotary motion to linear motion.
As the debate rages on, machinery-company leaders are wondering when some new electric-power technology will come along, pushing the all-electric presses of 2,000 tons and higher into an economical price. Tawarada thinks hybrids and hydraulic-clamp presses will retain their strongholds in those giant machines. “But only for awhile, until the cost factor and technology factor overcomes the current problems,” he said.