The Role of Automation in the Plastics Industry

Automation in the plastics industry is not an either/or zero-sum game that forces factory owners to decide between an all-human workforce or an all-automated one. Despite articles that would have us think robots will eliminate the global industrial workforce, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, automating certain operations within the plastics industry can actually help increase the human workforce and allow manufacturers to expand without actually increasing their overall footprint or adding additional shifts and increasing payrolls.

Plastics manufacturing processes that can benefit from automation

There are a number of plastics processes that can use automation in any number of ways. For example, in the medical devices industry, there are occasions where a plastic part needs to be inserted into a medical component. For example, one plastics manufacturer uses an automated process to handle that, as well as measure the cavity pressure to ensure the parts are properly inserted without damaging the component or the mold.

One can imagine how many pieces were broken or defective if and when that process was done by hand. Or a product like that may not have existed in the first place because the process was too delicate and the parts were too likely to break when done by hand or a non-smart machine.

In another example, imagine the simple process of taking parts out of a molding machine. All that step requires is for someone to remove the new part and transfer it over to a new container or belt. Remove and transfer. Remove and transfer. It doesn't take special training, and it doesn't require special skills.

However, it's something that needs to be done constantly. A 6-axis robot could remove the different parts and transfer them to their next step. Even building a smaller and more complex plastic component is possible thanks to automation. These are tasks could never have been done by hand or with the machines that were available 30 years ago.

Today, the different manufacturing technologies can be used to create and assemble the smallest possible parts, as well as measure their accuracy and consistency. The monitoring systems can alert operators when there's a problem, as well as identify the particular part that caused the problem.

How automation can be applied to plastics manufacturing

Automation can do a variety of things in plastics manufacturing, opening up new possibilities for manufacturers to reach new markets and customers.

  • Automation allows companies to make lower volume products, whether it's 3D printing or special molding machines. Rather than dropping parts from your catalog or storing three year's worth of units in the warehouse, automation and additive manufacturing can let you produce a few small parts at one time without storing them on a dusty shelf.
  • Automated visual inspections can help manufacturers ensure they're producing consistent batches of products that are free of defects as well as ensuring that each unit has or does not have specific elements, and that each product is in compliance with specific requirements.
  • Companies can reduce the numbers of human-related rejections and errors through automation, especially in the steps of the process where they're most likely to happen. Some medical-molding equipment requires very strict installation and operational procedures, and an automated system could handle the removal and inspection of each part.
  • Automation can also reduce risks of serious injury where operators are working in dangerous environments or are moving parts and components that require special handling. They're also ideally suited for clean rooms, where the risk of contamination from human workers is an ongoing fight with special equipment and systems.

Other ways automation can be used in plastic manufacturing

Additive manufacturing — 3D printing — is becoming a more popular method of plastic production, letting companies produce smaller, more complex parts. It also allows companies to produce low-volume quantities of seldom-ordered products, rather than outsourcing them or just removing them from your product catalog. Additive manufacturing is also beginning to work more closely with automation providers as well.

According to Assembly Magazine, recent applications have begun involving ". . . automated guided vehicles (AGVs), collaborative robots, high-speed printers and other equipment (that) enable manufacturers to boost throughput, control quality, reduce cost and speed time to market." This allows plastics industry operations to handle more than just one or two types of product per mold:

Additive manufacturing lets companies build a multitude of products, creating them as part of a larger automated system. Thanks to the repetitive and specialized nature of the plastics industry, automation can be the solution that moves companies forward well into the 21st century as it allows them to produce delicate, complex parts, custom pieces, and even employ additive manufacturing.

Read also: Benefits of High-Speed Vision Inspection Systems

About the Author: Bruce Courtney

Bruce Courtney

Experienced professional with 30+ years working in creative technical fields. From my post-college years installing windmills in the mid-west (I affectionately call my Don Quixote years) through starting on the drafting boards at a Fortune 1,000 company, I have strived to provide unique out-of-the-box designs. This aptitude, coupled with leadership opportunities has led me down a wonderful path of challenging work.

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