You've heard the Sales 101 mantra: A motivated buyer leads to a sale ... of robots.
Talk about motivation: Jobs moving to China. Customers insisting on world-class quality and more secondary assembly work and lower prices.
At NPE 2003 in Chicago, visitors to the two dozen or so robot makers expressed a renewed interest in automation.
"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 of Erlanger, Ky.
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. of Cranston, R.I., estimates 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."
"Most of the simple stuff is either gone, or is going away," said Jack Jensen, sales engineering manager at Star Automation Inc. He said the robot supplier in Menonomee Falls, Wis., has not been hit by the downturn.
"Primarily the jobs that are staying in the U.S. have to be automated," Jensen said.
CBW Automation does a lot of work in 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 - they want 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. of Ayr, Ontario. 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 this time, 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.
During NPE 2003, held June 23-27 in Chicago, McCormick Place became the world's largest plastics factory. Everywhere you looked, robots were grabbing parts, stacking them, manipulating them into boxes and more. There even was one robot that talked.
Articulating-arm, six-axis robots were 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.
Joseph Portelli, plastics industry manager for Fanuc Robotics America Inc. of Rochester Hills, Mich., said the time-tested, three- or four-axis gantry robot is very good at extracting parts from horizontal injection presses. But he said they are more limited for tying in directly to secondary operations such as assembly or packing.
At NPE, Fanuc rolled out a six-axis, "articulated gantry" robot for on top of the press, called the Toploader M-16iB/20T. The robot can hang suspended beneath the rail or off the side of the rail, a "side-slung" arrangement Fanuc recommends for injection molding because it gives maximum reach and stroke.
Fanuc also debuted a small robot called the P-50, designed to paint plastic parts. One early customer was Summit Polymers Inc. of Portage, Mich. As he watched the robot at Fanuc's NPE booth, Adam Doyle, a Summit Polymers manufacturing engineer, said improving quality prompted the automotive molder to automate what formerly was a hand-painting process.
"Quality from hand painter to hand painter is ridiculous," Doyle said. The molder also liked the small size of the robot. "We're kind of tight as it is, so this doesn't take up much floor space," he said.
Also showing six-axis robots was the Robotics Division of Staubli Corp. The Duncan, S.C., company ran three of its RXplastics robots, specifically designed for injection molding. One demonstrated high-speed demolding combined with secondary operations and palletizing and stacking.
The second robot performed demolding and in-mold decorating of an automotive interior trim part, including a vision-controlled station for label trimming with an ultrasonic knife. The third robot simulated the complete, automated assembly of cellular phones.
Motoman Inc. of West Carrollton, Ohio, showed a new highly rigid, six-axis robot designed for parts-finishing work such as deburring, painting, grinding and sanding. The robot, called DX1350, simulated those operations on a saddlebag for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Jack Justice, Motoman's market manager for materials handling, said one fast-growing area is automated vision inspection, checking for quality, surface finishes, inspecting placement of labels and bar codes or checking bottles for leaks.
"We've been doing a tremendous business in packaging molded plastic bottles that will be transported to end users for filling," he said.