Hoping for a boost against high-tech Japanese and German competitors, Taiwan's plastic industry has developed technology that will let it, for the first time, make all-electric machines entirely from local technology.
With much fanfare, several of Taiwan's largest machinery firms unveiled new all-electrics at the Taipei Plas trade show, held Sept. 18-22 in Taipei, using servo motors developed by a joint Taiwanese industry and government-funded research project.
The NT$120 million (US$3.85 million) effort aims to free the companies from having to buy costly technology licenses for the motors from foreign firms, typically Japanese companies. Taiwan's government paid for about one-third of the project, with industry picking up the rest.
The goal is to design less-expensive machines that compete effectively against presses from the world's most advanced machinery companies, particularly the Japanese, and vault Taiwanese firms to the ranks of global competition.
But some in Taiwan's industry are skeptical that the project will achieve its goal, questioning whether the Taiwanese technology can be made cheaply enough to attract attention in the marketplace, or whether it can accomplish what organizers hope.
One supporter of the project, Fred Huang, chairman of the Taiwan Association of Machinery Industry, said in an interview after the Sept. 19 announcement ceremony in Taipei that the project is a major accomplishment and will help Taiwanese firms produce energy-efficient machines with a lower environmental impact.
``We are facing advanced countries ahead of us and developing countries chasing us from behind,'' Huang said. ``If the performance is nearly the same as the advanced countries, surely the cost will be lower here.''
He urged other sectors of the plastics machinery industry to look at the same model of joint government and industry research for other projects.
The servo-motor technology Taiwan developed should let its companies build fully electric machines that are 30 percent cheaper than Japanese competitors, said Hsin Chuan Su, the chief government researcher on the project. He is also director of the Intelligent Machinery Technology Division of the Taiwanese government's Industrial Technology Research Institute.
The key developments, he said, are the 7.5-kilowatts and 11-kilowatts servo motors developed by the project and manufactured by Teco Electro Devices Co. Ltd. in Taoyuan and ITRI.
Good servo motors are critical for high-end electric presses, and Hsin said Germans and Japanese dominate the field. Japanese servo motors are less expensive, so they tend to be favored by Taiwanese firms, he said.
One of the participants in the Taiwanese project, Fu Chun Shin Machinery Manufacture Co. Ltd. in Tainan, introduced a 50-ton all-electric press at the show that it believes will have almost the same performance as Japanese machines, but at 30 percent less cost, enough to make a difference in the market.
``The point is the price,'' said Ted Chuang, FCS sales department director. On performance, he said, ``we think the all-electric is almost the same as the Japanese machines.''
Another participant, Chumpower Machinery Corp., which makes PET stretch blow molding machines, said the research project will help it keep ahead of lower-cost Chinese machines. The company unveiled an all-electric, two-cavity blow molding machine using the Taiwanese servo motors.
``We face much competition from China in stretch blow molding and we need to have higher performance and higher quality,'' said Bush Hsieh, a director at the Taichung-based firm.
The new machine will let Chumpower better compete in higher-end markets such as pharmaceutical and cosmetics, he said.
Testing the limits
But there are some real limits to the current Taiwanese technology their relatively small servos can only be used in smaller machines.
Chumpower, for example, is still using Japanese servos for a larger all-electric it introduced at the show, as is injection press maker Victor Taichung Machinery Works Co. Ltd., which unveiled a 300-ton all-electric press for the computer and telecommunications industries.
Victor Taichung, which is a member of the research alliance and therefore entitled to use its work, also had smaller machines at the show that still used Japanese servos because they are better quality, said Martin Li, export sales manager in the overseas marketing department.
Still, he said they may use the Taiwanese servos in the future. The company joined the alliance as an investment in future developments, he said.
Victor Taichung has been making electrics on its own for several years, one of only a handful of local firms in Taiwan that still does.
Some remain unconvinced that the Taiwanese all-electrics will be profitable.
Steve Fang, the managing director of injection press maker Lien Yu Machinery Co. Ltd. in Tainan, predicted the machines will have to be at least 60 percent cheaper than Japanese machines to get buyers to look at them, otherwise the market will be limited.
He said the recent enthusiasm for Taiwanese-made electrics is based on image building and the desire to look good making an environmentally friendly machine.
Like many Taiwanese firms, Lien Yu said it tried several years ago to build an all-electric. Fang said it was a project with the Taiwanese government, but the main components had to be imported from Japan and prices were high.
``It was a complete waste of money,'' Fang said. ``The key point is that they are very strong in Japan. Even if we make it, we don't know where the market is.''
He said Lien Yu opted for a hybrid electric clamp system, which he painted as a compromise between energy and cost savings, and is putting research into improving energy performance without boosting cost.
David Chang, vice president of marketing at Multiplas Enginery Co. Ltd., said Japanese press makers have been slashing prices of their entry-level all-electrics, in part to try to kill off developing competition from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korean firms.
Taoyuan-based Multiplas believes the research project will help significantly in cutting costs of Taiwanese machines so they can better compete against the most advanced foreign competition, Chang said.
Multiplas specializes in vertical injection presses, and introduced a 55-ton vertical all-electric machine at the show, along with a 50-ton horizontal, using the Taiwanese components.
Chang echoed Lien Yu's point that they can achieve similar energy savings as all-electrics. But he said the all-electrics are cleaner and less polluting, a requirement in higher-end applications like medical and semiconductor manufacturing, Chang said.
He agreed that the Taiwanese servo motors are relatively small now, but he said the project is just beginning and local industry will keep improving them. Japanese companies have been making servo motors for decades and they too started small, before building larger and better ones.
``Right now we are the baby in this industry,'' Chang said.
Plastics News correspondent Lauren Hilgers contributed to this report.