Much has been written about the fourth industrial revolution and the need of industry and manufacturing to participate in the digital transformation or be left behind. However, the reality would seem to be that many companies, at least those in the European plastics processing industry, are taking it slowly.
Not many processors are comfortable talking about the subject. While the manufacturers of plastics processing machinery, systems and auxiliaries of all kinds continue to develop and expand on the Industry 4.0 technology available to the industry, many companies are still testing the waters. Some have developed an implementation strategy, and others are still wondering whether and where to start.
Nonetheless, there is an undercurrent of change that, while barely perceptible, has been making itself felt in the way European processors approach the purchase of new machinery and the type of automation that is being considered. All the injection molding machine manufacturers are reporting a heightened interest in increasingly sophisticated machines and turnkey, automated production cells. Robot sales have soared.
As Thorsten Kühlmann, secretary general of Euromap and managing director of the VDMA's plastics machinery group, described it: "It's like making popcorn. You know something's going on under the lid, but it takes a while — and then all of a sudden, everything starts popping at once."
And yes, there are always some leftovers that take longer to pop and even some that never do, whatever the amount of encouragement they get.
Experts tend to agree that a good place to start is with a manufacturing execution system, or MES, which can operate as a plant-level integration backbone. Wolfgang Frohner, co-founder and CEO of TIG, an Austrian company specializing in the development of customized MES solutions for the plastics industry, noted that despite the demonstrable benefits of a MES system, only an estimated 25 percent of processors used one. "There is still a lot of ground to win," he said. The biggest benefit of a MES system is the transparency provided by hard data: an IDC white paper sponsored by Seagate, for example, forecasts that by 2025, the global datasphere will reach 163 zettabytes — 163 with 21 zeros — and 10 times the 16.1ZB of data generated in 2016. "Data is like electricity," he quoted. "Without it there is no light."