WESTFORD, MASS. (June 21, 12:30 p.m. EDT) — As a frequent speaker, Jack Avery has earned a reputation as a plain-spoken man who is full of opinions on the plastics industry's future. He can switch gears from gas-assisted molding to the reciprocating screw to the latest in thermoforming. That diversity comes, in part, from Avery's job as manager of operational assets at GE Plastics' polymer processing development center.
Industry leaders from around the world make the pilgrimage to the giant facility in Pittsfield, Mass., where GE Plastics experts work with injection and blow molding, extrusion, thermoforming and just about every other type of plastics manufacturing imaginable. So when Avery talks about the value of combining processes, and using more than one material, he speaks from experience. The 34-year veteran of GE Plastics took time to answer questions in April, at an open house at Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd.'s technical center in Westford, where he was a speaker.
Q: So your talk is going to be about plastics processing in the 21st century. Well, we're already there! Can you recap how things have changed?
Avery: Customer products have changed. They're becoming more demanding, much more technical. So what I see happening is that now, we have to have more technology in place to be able to manufacture those products.
Q: How about some specific applications?
Avery: Go back to, say, the old CD. The old CD was 0.012 [inch] thick. It was one piece of plastic. Now you talk about DVD. With DVD, each individual part is half the thickness. You put them together and it's the same total thickness, but you have to be able to produce a part that's 0.006 thick, as opposed to 0.012 thick. And you have to be able to mold that with no distortion, no molded-in stress. And it's got to be perfectly flat. And so it makes it much more difficult.
Look at the way the front end of a car's being put together today. There's a lot more plastic going into those, and you have the opportunity to get a lot more functionality built into it. So that requires, again, a lot more capability both in the material and the process side, to be able to make those things cost effectively.
Q: Obviously, the days of the shoot-and-ship molder are over.
Avery: Consumer demands are becoming much more complicated and much more technically challenging. So as an industry, we have to ratchet up our technology. What's going to have to happen going into the 21st century is this: We're going to have to have higher-performance materials. We're going to have to use those materials in the amounts it makes sense to use them cost-effective. We're going to have more complicated and complex tooling and machines … to get full value out of each of those materials.
Q: OK, let's turn to injection molding technology. In the past 15 years, how much would you say the machines have improved?
Avery: I think there's been significant improvement from the capability point of view, what a machine can do today vs. what it did 15 years ago. And outside of that, the controls have greatly improved. Machines now can store a tremendous amount of information on setups, on tools, on materials and how you set it up.
Q: Are machines more precise?
Avery: Yes. The whole system has become more accurate, more reproducible, more consistent. The technical capability of the machines today is very much higher than it was 15 years ago.”
Q: You hear some people say that injection presses are really good, and anybody can buy them and make good parts — like injection molding has become a commodity. Do you agree?
Avery: If you want a basic injection molding machine to do a basic job, yeah. Just to mold something, OK. But if you want to really start to do multimaterial processing, or multiple processes, and then if you want to automate some of the part handling, then no. I look at the injection molding machine as kind of a control center for a manufacturing cell.
Say you have a multisite manufacturing operation. You can dial up all your sites through the Internet. You can check on what's up, what the downtime is, what the uptime is. Check on the productivity. And you could pretty much plan out your production through the controller on the machines. That's made the machine a much more powerful piece of equipment.
Q: Can injection presses get better?
Avery: Will the mechanical and hydraulic systems get that much better? That's going to be the hard part. I think those improvements are going to be more incremental.
Q: The reciprocating screw has been around since the 1950s, when it began to replace the plunger. Do you think something will come along to replace it? Or is the perfect bedrock technology? Some futurists mention particle beams, microwaves, magnetic fields. Can you see any major alternative to the screw for the next 20 years?
Avery: I honestly can't. I can't say that something's going to replace the reciprocating screw. There are ways to improve it for the basic system; you can tune it. But for the basic function of melting, conveying and filling the mold, it's solid.
Q: Most people say all-electric presses will be adopted in smaller-tonnage machines, but it will be harder to crack into the larger tonnages. What do you think?
Avery: I agree with that. It comes back to a lot of the uses of the small machines — you need very high precision, cleanliness for medical and electronics. So I see all-electric widely used there. On the bigger machines, the [electric] motors are still very expensive, until somebody comes up with a revolutionary new motor.
Q: Let's get into some controller issues. People talk about open architecture, plug and play and other buzzwords. What are your thoughts? Have we arrived at a purely “plug-and-play world”?
Avery: I think, no. Not actually. When you configure an operation, you have to have a plan on what you need to do and you have to work with the machine manufacturer to get those things configured today. A lot of these manufacturing cells need to be configured because of specific requirements. Because, as you know, each of these applications does not have a huge lifetime. They have a life of three, five years or whatever. After that point in time, you're going to have to redo that cell to make something different. So you have to have that flexibility to change the process.
Q: And the controllers are so much easier to use.
Avery: It's becoming easier to use if you can handle a computer. There's so much information in the machine that can be used to handle your ongoing, day-to-day activities from the scheduling point of view, and also to set up molds and to set up jobs and material usage. The issue is the setup people, the operators. They have to have the flexibility to be able to do it.
Q: Let's hit some of the more exotic machine control areas. Wireless — what do you think about that?
Avery: Well, I think it would make it easier to operate. But again, the downside of that is going to be how much interference would there be on some of the manufacturing floors. We have a system in [GE's polymer processing development center] just for our computers. The range is not unlimited. I'm sure that'll change and get better, but right now I would have to say most manufacturing facilities would have to still be hard-wired at this point in time.
Q: Voice recognition?
Avery: I haven't seen any real voice recognition yet.
Q: Video on the controller is becoming more common. I was down at Vecoplan LLC in North Carolina, and I saw a controller with complete video, to show operators how to perform each function, to explain the process. And this was on a grinder!
Avery: It's not exotic anymore. It's available and it's not expensive. I think in another 10-15 years it'll be very common.
Q: Let's move over to the sales side of machinery. I've been hearing some speculation that some large molders are looking at pay-per-shot. Basically, they would pay for the machine as it produces parts. It seems like some big changes could be coming. Any thoughts?
Avery: I think people are probably doing it. Because it's going to be very difficult for a lot of people. You look at what the automotive guys are trying to do. They're trying to squeeze every living nickel out of their suppliers. And I think there's got to be some creative ways to help finance equipment.
Maybe there's a secondary equipment market out there where, instead of selling everything, they lease it and after five years, they take it back and sell it on the secondary market. They upgrade it and sell it. Maybe some of it will go to China. Some of it will go to Indonesia, or to South America.
Q: What about the superstore concept, where one big manufacturers' representative sells several competing lines of injection press?
Avery: That might make sense if you're talking about a standard machine. If you're talking about a 250-ton hydraulic, you got a 40-ounce barrel on it, which one will give you the best deal? OK. But when you're talking about adding more options to do specific jobs, where it's more of a custom deal, then that falls out of the window.
Maybe that would depend if some of the smaller manufacturers don't feel they have enough volume to justify their own sales rep force. That would fall on the lower end of the capability requirement.
Q: Turning to automation: it seems like, right now, U.S. processors have the desire to automate. They realize China is a threat; they need to improve themselves. But a big challenge remains: A lot of them aren't earning much profit. Maybe that's improving now, but isn't the profitability issue holding companies back?
Avery: I think there's a bigger issue. Unfortunately when a lot of people use robotics, it's more of a pick and place, and a transfer of parts. Where the value of robotics really comes in, is adding value to the part. It requires more than just a simple robot. We really have to design the process to be automated, where you use a five- or six-axis robot to be able to do that.
If all you're doing is pick and place, what you're doing is, you're replacing Chinese labor. And OK, that's one way to do it. But I say you really need to use the robots to add value. That's where you get the full benefit from automation.
Q: But what about that profitability angle?
Avery: Hey, it's a tough environment out there. I sympathize with the molders.
Q: Design has been a hot issue. How important is it for a molder to have in-house product design, or at least a close working relationship with outside designers?
Avery: You can't make a general comment for all molders. … You have to decide where you want to play. Do you want to be somebody who has the capability to work with both the design and manufacturing? Or do you want to be on the receiving end of the design? You have to decide.
But the people that do have it, I believe, are going to have a big advantage. Because they'll have the ability to influence how the process comes together. The designers have a significant influence over the materials and the process. So by having that in-house, you have a tremendous opportunity to influence how that whole thing works. And keep work in the U.S.
You have to get all the people involved early. Then the better quality, the lower cost, the faster it's going to go. And there will be a higher probability of success in the first shot.
Q: Obviously you can send files electronically to China and work via e-mail and teleconferencing …
Avery: And what are they going to do? They're going to take that design and put it in the tool. Are they going to come back and say, “Geez, if you change this, this and this, you'll save a third the cost of the tool, and your molding cycle will be cut down by 25 percent.” Are they going to do that?