There are no machine operators employed at Plastic Components Inc., a custom injection molder with two facilities in Germantown, Wis.
Most of the time, the "parts makers" at the company's roughly 38,000-square-foot facility on Bunsen Drive don't require physical supervision and really don't seem to mind whether the lights at the factory are turned on or off. That's because these parts makers aren't human; they're machines.
In fact, the company has always had "an automated, no-operator, manufacturing environment," according to Gene Mussel, PCI's operations manager.
Monday through Friday, the Bunsen plant is only staffed on the first shift to do changeovers. But the other 16 hours — the second and third shifts — are completely unattended. Even on Saturday and Sunday, the parts makers are left alone to essentially manage their own production processes.
"It's parts specific, but we have components that could run up to three days without anybody having to address the material handling aspects," Mussel said in a phone interview.
Today, PCI runs 67 injection molding machines with clamping forces ranging from 35-500 tons — 47 at its main factory on Morse Drive and 20 fully automated work cells at the Bunsen Drive lights-out plant.
The company employs 82 (human) workers and ranks No. 169 on Plastics News' annual listing of North American injection molders, reporting $35 million in sales in 2017.
"Our accelerated growth would not have been possible without the foundational technologies allowing for repeatable and controlled lights-out manufacturing," Mussel said. "The equipment cross-communication and remote monitoring has proven successful for our lights-out operation."
The Bunsen Drive facility started with four injection presses in 2011, and it now has 20. Mussel said the factory would not have grown without "the basic premise of Industry 4.0" that PCI implemented.
When the Bunsen Drive facility was established, PCI said it selected vendors that could tie into a central programmable logic controller (PLC), so that the presses and auxiliary equipment could communicate to some extent.
"The challenge of an off-site lights-out facility required that we have tremendous confidence that the equipment worked in unison to ensure we were producing quality parts," Mussel said, adding that when the company started the lights-out facility, the buzzword "Industry 4.0" didn't even exist.
Another buzzword, the "internet of things," also wasn't as prominently used in manufacturing environments as it is today, which dictated the initial choices PCI had in terms of Industry 4.0 technology.
"At that time, we were forced to resort to simplified machine communication via a press-mounted PLC and basic remote monitoring via IQMS and RJG," Mussel said. "The internet of things has advanced communication to new levels, surpassing what we originally developed in 2011."
PCI uses the IQMS ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to monitor each machine in real time across both facilities in addition to RJG Inc.'s in-mold sensors and eDart system, which monitor cavity pressure and temperature to help identify any variations or weight imbalances during the part molding process.
"IQMS allows us in real time to one, identify if the machine is up or if it's down for some type of alarm reason," Mussel said. "And then based on the cycle time and past run rate, it's instantaneously providing to our scheduler how long that run needs to go until we fulfill the order that's created from the customer purchase order."
More importantly, from a preventative maintenance standpoint, Mussel said, the system is tracking the number of cycles on both the tool and the press, so the company gets pre-emptive alerts as a machine nears the set number of cycles to trigger maintenance activities.
The eDart system is hard-mounted to the injection molding machines and is complemented by eDart manager software, which allows certain employees to monitor any of the machines connected to PCI's network from a desktop computer or laptop.
"The lights-out facility obviously saves significantly on overhead and labor costs," Mussel said. "Additionally, the combination of IQMS and RJG allowing us to remotely monitor means that we're still able to run a very efficient and high utilization, and produce at an extremely high rate with exceptional quality.
"So, I think that's really priceless because it separates us from many in our industry and delivers quality that the large OEMs we work with really expect at a minimum."
To stay ahead of competition, PCI is currently researching Industry 4.0 products and equipment that apply to downstream value-added activities, such as ultrasonic welding.
"Processors need to analyze how the technologies will make them better or provide improved service and capabilities to their customers, and then make the leap," he said. "The opportunity cost of not implementing 4.0 technology is greater than the hard costs."