You've heard the Sales 101 mantra: A motivated buyer leads to a sale. If true, then molders should be jamming the booths of the two dozen or so robot manufacturers exhibiting at NPE 2003.
Talk about motivation: Jobs moving to China. Customers insisting on world-class quality and more secondary assembly work and lower prices.
"They realize that to stay competitive, they have to automate. Over the last three to five years, it's really become a new world market," said Shane Wycuff, a salesman at Remak North America (Booth S832).
U.S. plastics processors still lag behind other regions of the world. According to officials at robot makers interviewed for this story, robots are running on about 25-40 percent of all injection presses operating in the United States. That's significantly less than in such robot-loving countries as Germany and Japan.
Small molders are even less automated. John Mallon, president of Yushin America Inc. (Booth S2093), estimates that robots are at work on just 10 percent of injection presses at small U.S. molders.
But every molder, large and small, seems to be wary of China.
"Everywhere we go, they express interest in keeping business from leaving for China," Mallon said. "The small guys are really worried about it."
CBW Automation (Booth S2570) does a lot of work on packaging, one area that seems safe. But nobody is complacent, said Mark Bamberger, CBW's executive vice president. "I don't care where the competition is, there's always going to be competition. You've got to become more efficient," he said.
Robot manufacturers said they're hearing a strong message from customers - a desire to reduce costs and do more automated secondary operations near the press, including checking for quality.
Mallon called quality control "a huge trend" in robotics. "A lot of it is integrating with pressure sensors in the mold," he said. The robot also can handle a part through vision inspection or a weighing station, then kick out the part if it's bad.
Safety is another factor. Robots long have been used on large parts such as bumper fascias where it's difficult - and can be hazardous - for workers to go in to remove the part. Full automation also eliminates the risk of amputations. And a robot doesn't come down with carpal-tunnel syndrome. According to U.S. government data, plastics processing had the sixth-highest number of ergonomic injuries of any industry in 2000, showing a jump from the year before.
It all translates into busy times for automation, making robots one of the few bright spots in the otherwise struggling plastics machinery business.
Several robot makers acknowledge business suffered in 2001, when overall capital spending collapsed. The U.S. market for injection molding machines fell by more than 40 percent to about 3,500 and stayed there in 2002, eating into robot orders tied directly to new-press sales.
The United Nations said North American investment in industrial robots fell 17 percent in 2001, after several years of growth. But sales picked up again in 2002. Now the Robotic Industries Association reports orders for industrial robots jumped 48 percent in the first quarter of 2003, marking the best start in five years.
Plastics-specific robot numbers are scarce. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington collects data on robots, but SPI folds the numbers into auxiliary equipment for its publicly released report.
"It's been a transition year and we're starting to see the market pick up again," said Kevin Smith, vice president of marketing and sales at Ventax Robot Inc. (Booth E9813). The company makes robots and acts as an integrator, custom-building manufacturing cells.
Smith said that in a recession companies typically invest in automation to become more efficient. But money has been especially tight.
Money has been the biggest constraint to automation, Smith said.
"I've got dozens and dozens of projects that people desperately want to do, but they're waiting for approval." But Smith said investment is starting to kick in, driven by foreign competition, greater complexity of molding and lightning-fast processing followed by downstream demands.
McCormick Place this week becomes the world's largest plastics factory. Everywhere you look, robots are grabbing parts, stacking them, manipulating them into a box and more. There's even a robot that talks to you.
One thing to look out for is articulating-arm, six-axis robots mounted beside - and, in a new wrinkle, above - injection molding machines. A basic parts picker has to hand off a molded part to a second robot, or deposit it to a conveyor to be moved downstream. The articulating robot can do it all: stretch in to snatch parts, flip over to add inserts, then swing around to hold the parts for trimming, pad printing or a vision-system quality check.