by Nicole Mitchell, editor, Plastics Business
Production efficiencies achieved through automation can be the difference between a healthy bottom line and one that leaves little room for growth. From fully automated lights-out production and push-button molding cells to robotic pick-and-place processes and ERP systems, plastics molding companies are at varying stages in the implementation of the newest technology.
To provide some insight into automated production opportunities, four injection molding professionals shared their companies’ goals, decision-making processes and application knowledge with Plastics Business: Peter Fongemie, process technician supervisor for Dymotek; Eric Berg, chief engineer for Revere Plastic Systems; Dave Seedorf, engineering manager for Team 1 Plastics and Sanjay Patel, director of business development for Midwest Molding, Inc.
What is your company working to achieve through automation?
Revere Plastics Systems, LLC, Novi, Michigan, is a multisite, nine-plant operation focused on plastics injection molding, assembly and testing, and the level of automation differs at each site. “We strive to be the lights out, but we haven’t applied that to every cell yet,” Berg said. “We have various levels of automation throughout all of our plants, and we try to target the right type of application or automation before we make the investment.” Revere also strives to reduce direct labor needs by automating some of the non-value-add work, which allows those operators to focus on value-added activities.
At Midwest Molding, a Bartlett, Illinois manufacturing company offering injection, insert and two-shot molding and assembly processes, “We try to automate as much as possible in order to reduce labor and increase quality and efficiency, but we also only want to use automation when it makes sense, because it doesn’t make sense on every project,” said Patel.
Team 1 Plastics, Albion, Michigan, is a custom plastic injection molding company that specializes in precision plastic components for the transportation industry. “At our operation, we have seven molding machines, and each of them has some type of automated process that takes place through the use of robots,” Seedorf said. “I think the intent of automation is to reduce labor, keep costs down, to be efficient and stay competitive.”
Dymotek, with headquarters in Ellington, Connecticut, has been designing and molding plastic injection and silicone parts since 1990. Fongemie said, “We’re trying to reduce the cost of labor, and it’s a big thing for us to reduce the action labor through automation. We do two-shot liquid silicone injection molding – we specialize in it – so we’re constantly looking at the automation to see how we can improve the process and make sure each part is near perfect for inspection.”
How is automation defined in the plastic molding space?
Seedorf: We define automation as any type of system that reduces labor content, whether that’s as simple as packaging and part removal or as sophisticated as assembly, insert molding or post-molding at an assembly station.
Berg: As we look at targeting the factory floor to assist our teammates in the work content that we see at the presses, we do a lot of robot insertion of insert-molded components, using robots to demold a product or performing degating operations before the product would hit the operator’s station. We also do a lot of secondary assembly next to the molding cells, so we try to take away some of that work content there and put our labor hours to better use.
Fongemie: For us, it’s all about having the right automation in place to reduce the labor content and make sure that we’re producing parts that could be inspected with less hands-on time from the quality team. We review quality on a daily basis, and we use IQMS to do so.
Patel: We also use IQMS. There’s still a long road ahead because it’s such a powerful system, but we have implemented real-time monitoring. And we’re in the process of implementing an automatic labelling process and integrations within the quality module as well.
How are the priorities for automation decided?
Fongemie: One of our highest priorities is reducing the labor content in our processes, because it’s difficult to be fully staffed on a consistent basis. So, we constantly monitor where we can reduce labor by providing automation.
Berg: We look at it on the front end, when we’re quoting a new project, so we can understand the amount of labor it would take to do a specific job based on how we see the product being built. At that point, with the help of our automation teams, we estimate the costs of automation for that type of assembly and decide if it’s justified from the very beginning. Once a product is in production, we got to rely on the plant-level teams and their daily Gemba walks. The walks are a daily look from the manufacturing teams to assess where their labor shortages are and what opportunities exist that justifies themselves in today’s environment to implement some quick wins.
Patel: In the last four to five years, when we’ve added an automation team in-house for existing programs, we’ve offered the savings to the customers while asking them, in some cases, to fund the automation. Some have said yes, but most have said no. If we thought automation was a priority based on the longevity of the program or the number of annual hours, then before deciding to automate in-house at our cost, we typically look at the return on investment from A to Z, without compromising any of the requirements or quality needs of that product.
When is it a good time to implement automation?
Seedorf: I think any time is a good time to implement automation. Obviously, with a new project, the sooner it can be implemented, the higher return on investment we’re going to have. But as we all know, sometimes we run into situations midstream where there’s a quality issue or labor is more than anticipated. The decision on when to implement automation should always be based on the savings it returns to the company.
Patel: For us, there is basic automation that is nonnegotiable from the beginning, such as robots with end-of-arm tooling, combined with machine and quality software. Over the years, we’ve implemented those no matter what, even with low-volume jobs. Then, in more recent years, if we made an offer to a customer for a multi-year program that’s already in existence and they don’t wish to fund it, we will look at our ROI and determine if it’s beneficial for us.
How should technical support team members be trained to maintain the improvements achieved through the automation process?
Seedorf: A lot of these companies offer online training and educational services now. Essentially, our engineers will become the trainers to the production staff – a hands-on process so the production staff is able to incorporate the automation. There are checklists to ensure that everything works correctly once it’s set up, but the training side of it is really a handoff from engineering to production, with our engineering team providing support as needed if they run into problems.
Berg: Everyone is fighting the labor issues and lack of technical skills, and those are battles that we’re fighting, too. We’ve tried to drive commonality across our facilities with the robots, components and vendors so if someone were to transfer from plant to plant, they’re already familiar with the automation. Or, if one plant is trying to implement a piece of automation, there’s probably a someone at another facility who already crossed that bridge or learned something the hard way. “Train the trainer” is where we’re driving to, and we try to send our maintenance engineers to specific vendor robot or PLC training. Then, within our plants, we identify a task-level assessment of who is capable of doing jobs in specific fields of programming, robotics or troubleshooting a PLC. Once they reach a high level, we want them to train somebody else.
How do you manage automation direction and implementation in a multi-plant environment?
Berg: We’re trying to come up with strategic vendors, whether that’s for items we would purchase and build ourselves or for those times when we’re going to have something built by an outside integrator. The further we get into that process, the easier things become because we know what it takes to build something – we know the timeframe and the cost and our outside vendors know our expectations.
Patel: We have a similar process. For example, we try to use Epson robots when we’re doing post-assembly or prepping to load inserts into a horizontal machine for insert molding. We have developed a good relationship with that vendor, so not only are the support and training systematic across the board, but the pricing also gets a little better because they know that we’re going to come back to them.
Fongemie: We try to treat everything the same in both of our facilities, and that means having the maintenance engineers available in both facilities to train the same way with the same equipment. We’ve found that if we do these things separately, there are impacts when we move technicians across plants.
What percent of automation projects are handled in-house vs. through outside system integrators?
Seedorf: Most of our automation and integration is done by outside suppliers for end-of-arm tool design/building and assemble machine design/building. We do end-of-arm tool building internally if time allows and depending on complexity.
Patel: I’m not sure what the percentage is. In the last couple of years, we’ve added an internal automation team, and we’ve always built end-of-arm tooling in-house, but then we found a local vendor that was very competitive. It makes sense to send that work outside so we can focus on bigger, more complex items.
What percentage of capital expenditures is focused on automation initiatives?
Berg: We target 80% of our capital expenditures (CapEx) to be targeted for continuous improvement (CI) or CI-driven, and that can fall in many buckets. I’d say 20% of that 80% is allocated to specific automation projects. We try and identify those critical projects that have good payback plant by plant.
Seedorf: We don’t have a CapEx account dedicated for automation. How we operate is that during the estimation period, we include whatever automation is required to do that job – whether it’s assembly, end-of-arm tooling, robots and so on. Those items are included in the quotation process, so if we win the job, we’ve already got the money assigned for it. If problems exist in the manufacturing or assembly areas, we present to upper management a proposal for a solution and, depending on the answer, we move on.
Peter Fongemie, Dymotek; Eric Berg, Revere Plastic Systems; Dave Seedorf, Team 1 Plastics and Sanjay Patel, Midwest Molding, Inc., were panelists at the 2021 MAPP Benchmarking & Best Practices Conference, held in November in Indianapolis, Indiana. The 2022 event is scheduled for October 5-7. For more information, visit www.mappinc.com.