To celebrate Plastics News' 20th anniversary in 2009, we continue with our weekly countdown of the Top 20 issues of lasting impact, as reported in our pages.
The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
No. 8: Automation changes manufacturing
From the cotton gin to the injection molding machine, solid productivity gains in manufacturing have sprung from factories steadily getting faster and ever-more efficient. Those improvements have certainly helped the plastics industry grow over the past 20 years.
Veteran NPE-goers, think back through past shows. Technology considered rare and exotic two decades ago has become more mainstream:
c Robots have become more prevalent and now we see six-axis articulating robots that can manipulate molded parts through quality, decorating, assembly and onto packaging. With some applications, it's even possible to weigh every single part.
c Dramatic advances have come from multicomponent molding and in-mold assembly. Today, we have molds that rotate between injection molding units. A single machine can turn out parts already ``assembled'' from two or more materials.
An elite few processors have invested in machines that do in-mold assembly. This type of highly advanced technology helps keep the plastics industry in the forefront of manufacturing and turns out products that exploit the unique features of plastics, which can be formed into nearly any shape.
c Speed of production has improved to reach, in many cases, mind-boggling levels.
Compact discs are a great example. Back in the early 1980s, it took 20 seconds to mold a polycarbonate CD blank; today it's more like three seconds. Most of the technological advancement came in a five-year period from the late '80s to the early '90s.
Another amazing case study is that of the PET preform and bottle, where walls have become ever thinner and more lightweight.
c Want to see real speed? Go to NPE 2009 and check out injection press suppliers doing in-mold labeling of cottage cheese tubs or other articles of thin-wall packaging. Parts get whipped out of the press, sometimes at cycle times under three seconds. Side-entry robots for IML flash in with lightning speed, so fast you almost can't even see them move.
c Rapid prototyping was once dominated by specialists, the service providers. Twenty years ago, your only alternative was to send your prototyping work to these third-party prototype houses.
Now many plastics processors, even some smallish companies, have their own RP equipment. In the last five years, low-priced three-dimensional printers have exploded onto the manufacturing scene; in the near future, you may see similar models for home use.
c Tune in to Plastics News over the next 20 years, as rapid prototyping fuels something called direct manufacturing. New materials and rapid prototyping technology can be employed to make one-off finished products, each one totally customized. Mass customization could become reality for more and more products.
c CAD, CAE and CAM computer-aided design/engineering/ manufacturing have revolutionized plastics, as well as other industries.
One big event came last year, when Autodesk Inc., a maker of broad-based AutoCAD design software, bought Moldflow Corp. to gain Moldflow's specialty in CAE for plastics.
It's been an exciting ride. The plastics industry never sleeps. When you look all the way back to 1989 and move through to today, you realize that whole factories now are filled with highly automated machinery, all linked together, and that a company can interface several plants on different continents.
Think ahead; ponder the next 20 years. Can plastics manufacturing get even faster, even more efficient? You already know the answer.
Bregar is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter.