While the return on investment may still be hard to quantify, a growing number of North American plastics processors are reporting benefits from using Industry 4.0.
Company owners say it's helped them to win new business, improve quality and deal with shortages of skilled labor.
Scott Rogers, technical director at Noble Plastics Inc. in Grand Coteau, La., is among the injection molders who feel it was the right move to be an early adopter of Industry 4.0 technology.
"I think there's ways to approach it where you can get a return on your investment within a year, or certainly two years," Rogers said.
"There's a lot of sources out there who say if you fully embrace this, you'll get a 20 or 30 percent improvement in efficiency. I don't know if I really believe that. But I think we could all hope to get at least 5 percent," Rogers said.
Plastics News wrote about Noble Plastics' use of Industry 4.0 in 2018. At the time, it had two highly automated plants with Engel and Arburg presses, hooked up to a digital network through its six-axis Fanuc robots. The company was developing applications using Oracle Corp.'s Internet of Things cloud service, and monitoring and control systems using IQMS's enterprise resource planning system.
At the time, Rogers dreamed of a time when artificial intelligence would shut down machines that weren't performing correctly, or even automatically correct molding parameters on the fly.
"So we started going down that path. And, you know, it actually worked pretty well. But in the end, you're looking at all this data, and you're excited about things like artificial intelligence. But at the end of the day, it's the people who are closest to the machines who have the biggest effect on your business," Rogers said.
"So we started looking at it from this standpoint: How do we get information to those people as quick as possible? So if it's a maintenance problem, how quickly can I get that information to the maintenance guy so he can help if there's something weird going on with the process, or maybe the operator, or the shift leader, to quickly alert them when there's an issue."
Noble Plastics created a shop floor application that works as a conduit, both to and from the molding floor. It takes the IoT data and connects it with the ERP system.
"It alerts the appropriate people if something is awry, and then it tracks how quickly things happen. People can make requests through the ERP system, and that all becomes data," Rogers said.
Noble Plastics developed a hardware device that sends information to the IoT platform. It plugs directly into the Euromap interface that connects injection presses to robots.
As a pioneer in using Industry 4.0, Rogers has had the opportunity to attend and present at technology conferences where Noble Plastics is much smaller than its peers, many of which generate sales of at least $2 billion a year.
"It's a different scale. You know, the Industry 4.0 journey for somebody like us is the not the same as it is for Ford or Black & Decker," he said.
Its newfound experience helped Noble Plastics differentiate itself from other molders. But Rogers joked about that: "I try to remind everybody that our customers don't care if we've got robots. They don't care if we're into Industry 4.0, in most cases. Our customers care if they get their parts and if they're right and if they're on time.
"Of course, when we talk to people, we talk about our technology. And hopefully that gives them some added confidence that we can get them the parts that they want on time," Rogers said.
Rogers considers the implementation a success, and now he plans to create a new business to help other molders tackle Industry 4.0.
"You know, it's more of a journey than a destination, because there's always going to be something a little newer coming out. There's always improvements that can be made, like any process. But yeah, I consider what we've done successful," Rogers said.
Noble Plastics has 14 presses ranging from 50-730 tons of clamping force, 50 employees and about $9 million in annual sales. In addition to molding, it also builds automation systems for other companies, mostly in plastics, using Fanuc robots.
By the end of the year, Rogers plans to have multiple beta sites for its Industry 4.0 implementation business.