McCormick Place was packed with automation, at-the-press work cells, even in-mold assembly during NPE 2006, as U.S. molders sought out answers to a problem that isn't going away: competition from China, India and other low-wage countries.
Nobody kept score, but most machinery executives said exhibitors showed more work cells at this NPE than earlier ones. But nearly every injection press maker agreed that U.S. processors - after surviving the global-economy onslaught - are investing in technologies to cut labor costs, improve quality and track parts better.
Several equipment officials noted a new attitude among their U.S. customers.
``Automation has been around, obviously, for a long time. But I would say there's a certain urgency in the industry, where people now are really going toward the automation as a serious way to reduce costs,'' said Liam Burns, general manager of Negri Bossi USA Inc., at the Chicago show. ``And that urgency four, five, six years ago wasn't there.''
Paul Caprio agreed. The U.S. plastics industry sank after the 2000 NPE, and began to climb back at NPE 2003, said Caprio, executive vice president of Krauff-Maffei Corp. in Florence, Ky.
``I will tell you, from a manufacturer supporting this market, the mind-set changed at that time, so what went to China is lost. It was inexpensive or small parts that could be done there. And we won't get that business back. But the molders in the injection business, the mind-set changed that, to compete in the world market, they have to have the right machinery, they have to have the right molds and the right automation,'' Caprio said.
Both machinery suppliers have taken action - through their parent companies in Europe - to become more full-service suppliers, of both injection presses and automation. Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH bought German robot maker Neureder AG in 2002, and integrated the business into its company.
Sacmi Imola scrl, parent of Negri Bossi SpA of Milan, Italy, two years ago bought an automation integrator in Italy called Gaiotto Automation SpA. Burns said Gaiotto uses Kuka and Motoman six-axis robots when it supplies automation systems.
Integration of molding and automation is the key to high-end plastics manufacturing, Burns said. Picking up Gaiotto also removed a final stumbling block for small companies looking to add robots, since Negri Bossi now can offer a complete package, backed up by experienced people, he said.
``Three years ago, we sold no integrated robot systems. So far this year, we've sold 14,'' Burns said.
In-mold labeling is becoming more widespread at trade shows, but in-mold assembly is still pretty rare. During NPE, one panel discussion was titled ``Do It All in the Mold.''
Milacron Inc. lured the NPE crowd to its booth by molding a two-part lid in two colors, doing in-mold assembly and labeling, all in a single 275-ton Ferromatik Milacron K-Tec press. The star of the work cell was a twin-cube, stack-turning mold from Foboha GmbH Formenbau of Haslach, Germany.
The disc-top closures are the type used on bottles for shampoo, shower gel or body lotion.
The two rotating cubes each have four 48-cavity mold faces. On one turning cube, the body of the lid is molded. The other cube molds the flip-up disc. The mold cubes then index to line up the mold faces for assembly. During part ejection, the disc is forced into the cap body.
Elsewhere, Jeff Hicks of Sumitomo Plastics Machinery America LLC said work-cell integration continues to evolve, though not always with head-turning innovations. ``There's not just assembly, there's in-mold degating, cutting the gates using the machine mechanism,'' said Hicks, vice president of technical sales at Sumitomo in Norcross, Ga.
Advanced molding and full automation is becoming mandatory, said Robert Columbus, head of marketing and regional sales manager at JSW Plastics Machinery Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill. ``Our customers are leaning heavily toward that, in order to put value-added to increase the cells beyond just injection molding - because they know they can't survive doing just what they call shoot-and-ship,'' he said.
Peter Gardner, general manager of Niigata injection presses for DJK-Global Ltd. in Itasca, Ill., said U.S. molders are focusing on specific machines, and automation, to produce specific parts.
``It seems to be very job-specific orders for new machines and new projects,'' he said. ``Replacements of older equipment is where we'll see the multiple machine orders, where they'll order five or six presses. But people seem to be a little more cautious than they used to be, when they would replace and they'd buy 20. Now they just seem to be taking smaller chunks.''
Part documentation also is an incentive to add automation, and vision systems to check for quality, said Larry Scarbrough, vice president of Avalon Vision Solutions in Lithia Springs, Ga. Avalon mounts a camera on the mold that takes a video of every single cycle.
Vision systems can be linked back into the molding machine and the automation. ``We see a lot of connectivity between robots, vision systems and other automation equipment, that our system could be integrated with,'' Scarbrough said.
The in-the-mold trend applies to large-tonnage machines and small.
David Bernardi, senior sales and marketing manager for big-press maker Ube Machinery Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., cites insert molding, in-mold painting and coinjection and two-material molding as examples.
``The trend in the plastics industry, and particularly in automotive, is to do more in the mold, the value added. Complete the product in the tool before you discharge it to the next step,'' Bernardi said.
On the small side, Boy Machines Inc. ran a 60-ton VV-brand vertical press with a built-in six-axis Staubli robot loading inserts, then removing finished Allen wrenches.
``There's a movement toward automating the vertical, insert-molding work cell,'' said Robert Koch, president of Boy Machines in Exton, Pa.
Caprio of Krauss-Maffei said the move toward automation makes him bullish on U.S. manufacturing. ``Americans are the best consumers in the world, in terms of just pure consumption. And for the manufacturers to assist in feeding those product lines for the end consumer, if you do it smart, you can compete, no matter what the rest of the world throws at you,'' he said.