Tuesday 13 December 2016

Plastics Industry: Level up your Digital Game! – 5 Ideas to get your Digital Plastics Revolution started (Digital Plastics Revolution Series – Impactor 1)

Digital welcome message at the Lisbon airport.

Welcome to my blog series entitled Digital Plastics Revolution!
In our daily lives we have noticed that digitalization and especially Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives are moving at a faster speed compared to some years ago. At this speed more and more disruptions occur in all type of industries. Digitalization is literally transforming one industry after the other. This includes also the plastics industry.
In this series I will explore and present the key elements of digital transformation and how these can be used in the plastics industry. Each part of this series presents a major key stone and is called therefore impactor.

So, let’s get started with impactor 1:

Following are my 5 ideas on how you can get the digital revolution started in your plastics business:

1) Digital Technology Platforms (DTP’s): Nowadays, new Digital Technology Platforms (DTP’s) constantly evolve. These are the major building blocks to get your digital business alive. Gartner suggests that companies should have a mix of 5 DTP’s [1]. These should be related to information systems, customer experience, analytics and intelligence, the Internet of Things and business ecosystems. In addition, DTP’s allow your business partners to connect with you from any location and device. Therefore, simply put: get familiar with DTP’s and learn how they can be used in your business.

2) Start creating digital ecosystems: We have to be fit to move in more and more complex networks and interconnected systems. Keeping the current hierarchical structured type of businesses will not help you dealing with this kind of complexity, however, moving toward an ecosystem approach will. Ecosystems are opened up systems and allow much more cross-functional activities [2]. Our whole business leadership structure should change. Digital Leadership should be based on an above-hierarchy, team concept which allows faster innovation.  Bigger companies often re-structure and re-organize to become “leaner”, but to the majority, the old hierarchal systems are kept. This is often influenced by political interest of protecting individual (high) positions within the business.  Fact is that the corporate culture and mindset needs to change! 

3) Awareness of the New Economy and its principles (winner-takes-it-all; zero-to-one with 10x improvements [3]): Although the internet is already 20 years old, the New Economy is still evolving and new possibilities as well as challenges come along with it. In my opinion, awareness of its main working principles is necessary for reforming and growing your business.  In a nutshell “the winner-takes-it-all” meaning that the best and most used platform gets the monopoly of the market. This principle was also coined by Peter Thiel with the expression zero-to-one [3].  Therefore, improvements in proprietary technology should be in a scale of 10x so that new businesses may succeed. In addition, based on a quote of Gary Vaynerchuck [4], you need to start asking yourself every day in the morning: “How can I put myself out of business?” In this way you challenge yourself to stay on top of your business. This is especially true when your business is doing great, because  then you tend to oversee the fact that somewhere a little start-up is already working on your downfall.

4) Clear vison and self-awareness: Your plastics business needs to agree on a vision which includes the digital transformation. This comes along with transforming the whole company culture including the employees’ mindsets. Everyone needs to lean in on their personal side to avoid digital illiteracy. Your company and you need to live, communicate and use methods from the year you’re actually living in (e.g. learning how to use tools like Google trends to see when a trend starts to manifest).  
5) Establish the role of a Chief Digital Officer (CDO): We need CDOs in C-suites to push the digitalization in plastics industry forward! This is also a clear sign to address the importance of the ongoing changes. The Strategy& Chief Digital Officer study [5] showed that only 6% of global companies (1,500 largest companies) have established the position of a CDO. However, this number is rapidly increasing. The consumer-focused industries have here the lead together with large companies. Bottom line: suggest your CEO to hire a CDO or find motivated people in your organization who can take up on such a position. This will help speeding up things!

In impactor 2 of this Digital Plastics Revolution Series I will present to you 2 major strategies to enhance digital transformation in plastics industry!
Thanks for reading!
Till next time and #findoutaboutplastics

[1] Kasey Panetta: Gartner’s Top 10 Technology Trends, http://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartners-top-10-technology-trends-2017/
[2] Pearl Zhu: Digital Master: Debunk the Myths of Enterprise Digital Maturity (2015)
[3] Peter Thiel: Zero to One, Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Crown Business; 1 edition (September 16, 2014)
[5]      Strategy&: The 2015 chief digital officer study, http://www.strategyand.pwc.com/reports/chief-digital-officer-study

Monday 5 December 2016

Optimizing your injection moulding production – my 5 How’s

In this blog post I give you a “cheating” guide to tackle some of the most frequent challenges in injection moulding: venting, mould release, mould shrinkage, hot runner systems and energy consumption.

Let’s get straight to it:

  • How to improve your venting?

Burn marks or short shots are often related to inefficient venting caused by air entrapment in the mould’s cavity. The first action to take is to lower the injection speed. This will reduce the amount of air which needs to leave the cavity within the injection time frame. If the latter does not help, venting can also be enhanced by placing a thin copper foil (~ 0.01 mm) on the closing surfaces of the mould. By trial and error the foil thickness may be adjusted to enhance venting while keeping flash phenomena to a minimum.
  • How to have a better mould release?
One way to go is chemically by using silicone-based releasing­ agents, however, this is no option in case the parts need to be painted afterwards. In such cases silicone-free products can also be utilized. When you have a mould which produces cups or (soup) bowls, it is helpful to have the core (forming the positive of the cup/bowl) at a lower temperature to prevent it from sticking in the cavity. The lower temperature leads to shrinkage of the part on the core and ejection is easier due to the availability of ejector pins there. Regarding the set-up of the cooling system, cooling lines connected in parallel (instead of in series) are more suitable to keep the mould temperature constant. Besides mould temperature fluctuations (too high mould temperature leads to warpage), overpacking (too high injection pressures) and overfilling are the main causes of mould releasing problems. In the latter cases, it is useful to control the part’s weight during production.
  • How to have a better hand on mould shrinkage?
Part’s shrinkage can be to a great extent minimized by applying the right pressures during the filling and packing processes. Choosing the optimal process pressures can be supported by consulting the pvT-diagram (see figure below) of the material system you are working with. For most material groups, e.g. commodities and engineering thermoplastics, multipoint pvT data is available free of charge on online databases such as CAMPUSPlastics.

In the pvT diagram we can follow what happens to the material during the injection moulding cycle: Injection of the melt happens fast, thus, there is no significant variation in temperature (vertical line from 1 to 2). The melt can only fill the mould cavities under high pressures. This results in a compression of the melt (2). Once filled in the cavities, the melt is allowed to cool down so that the part(s) can be ejected. During cooling, if no more melt is added, the specific volume of the part stays constant until  atmospheric pressure (1 bar) is reached (horizontal line from 2 to 3). At 1 bar, no further relaxation of the melt can take place, however, it can happen that at 1 bar the melt has not yet reached room temperature (3). In this case, the melt will follow the 1 bar line until room temperature or ejection temperature  (4). As it can be seen in the pvT diagram the isobaric trajectory of the melt from 3 to 4 is associated with a volume decrease or shrinkage. To keep shrinkage to a minimum you need to control your process in such a way that point 3 in the pvT diagram is as close as possible to point 4, or it does not exist at all. This can be reached by holding onto the right packing pressure in point 2. The ideal scenario is drawn in orange on the above diagram.
Mould temperature, melt temperature, injection speed, injection pressure, packing pressure level and time set, and dimensions of gate- and runner systems are all crucial parameters to be controlled in order to attain the right cavity pressures during your process.
Controlling process parameters play a key role in steering the resulting part’s shrinkage. Nevertheless, depending on the material system you are working with, e.g. semi-crystalline or amorphous polymer-based systems, post-processing shrinkage may additionally occur to different extents. Conversely, parts based on hygroscopic polymers such as polyamide may undergo swelling in post-processing stages due to moisture absorption.
  • How to handle hot runner systems?
One of major issues which can occur when using hot runners is material degradation. This has mainly two causes: longer residence time at higher temperatures on one hand and often not completely balanced flow/temperature gradients in the hot runner system on the other. It is helpful to lower the temperature of the hot runner whenever moulding is interrupted. Additionally, after moulding, not only purging of the cylinder should be done, but also purging of the hot runner system to be sure that all the remaining melt is out. Beneficial is to have a hot runner system which allows a separate heating zone by using different control units as well as using an electrical circuit which enables gradual heating (less risk of short circuiting due to moisture present in the heater cartridges).
  • How to save some energy?
Here are some tips which help reducing energy as well as material consumption: the machine nozzle should not always be docked to the mould. Once the gate is frozen, pull the cylinder back. When you use a shut-off nozzle you could place insulated plates between the mould and the machine. Keep an eye on the mould temperature and on the difference in the coolant temperature when entering and exiting the mould. The difference should be 1-2°C for good quality moulding and maximum 3-5°C for economic reasons. The plasticization can be at lower r.p.m and it should be slightly shorter than the cooling time. And regarding the cylinder: do not use a too big capacity cylinder for your shot weight.
I hope that my 5 how’s can help you in your moulding operations.
Thank you for reading my post.
Greetings and #findoutaboutplastics
Literature: GE Plastics injection moulding guide

Monday 17 October 2016

Digital Leadership in the Plastics Industry – A chance to speed up innovation?

In this blog post I show you how in my opinion Digital Leadership approaches the plastics industry. Digital Leadership - some of us might have already heard of it. One definition is that Digital Leadership is a fast, above hierarchy and team-based leadership concept, which aims to speed up innovations in companies. It is not strictly connected to digitalize the existing business model. It is about applying new methods and different instruments to analyze data [1].

In a survey of the German Society for Employee Leadership, differences between the classic leadership (known by all of us) and the Digital Leadership were shown. I have summarized some important ones in the following table [2].

Area of Difference

Traditional Leadership

Digital Leadership


Taking up tasks is strictly predefined. Crossing a line leads to conflicts.

Taking up tasks depends on the situation. The competences of managers and employees are connected to a given situation.


The manager controls the jobs, the resources and the interpretation of results.

The manager controls the coordination of jobs and respective resources. The interpretation of results is made together with the employees.

Goals and Review of Employees

Review of individual employees in fixed time intervals.

Dynamic review of the team and individuals in parallel.


Keep budget and quality on a stable level and minimize risks. This blocks space for creativity.

Digital leaders increase the level of awareness for change and keep the necessary competences for up-to-date changes.

Consumer electronics and automotive companies have managed to greatly reduce their time to market and now these expect that surrounding industries, such as the plastics industry are able to keep up.
The drift towards Digital Leadership has already started in the plastics industry, however, the most significant steps need yet to happen on the structural level of companies. Useless department structures need to be accessed and dismantled in order to set up a companywide network. This is expected to allow a new way of working more flexible and effective towards innovations. The collection, exchange and analysis of data together with the customers will be a key part of successfully rolling out Digital Leadership in the plastics industry.

Greetings & till next time!

[2] Prof. Dr. Rolf Van Dick: Umfrage der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Personalführung (DGFP) et al.

Monday 3 October 2016

Injection moulding of oral polymer-based drug delivery systems - 5 takeaways of my Ph.D.

Generally, in oral polymer-based drug delivery systems an amphiphilic polymer is utilized as the carrier matrix for an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) with low water solubility. The homogenous distribution of the API within the polymer matrix enhances its water solubility. Regarding the API’s physical state in such systems, this can be simply dispersed within the polymeric matrix forming a solid dispersion, or it can be dissolved forming a solid solution. During my Ph.D. the latter case was dealt with. In addition, I have exploited a model drug delivery system, where Soluplus® (BASF SE) was used as the polymer matrix and fenofibrate as the API.
The injection moulding of polymer-based drug delivery systems is a technology whose development is still at academic level. Up-to-date, commercialized state-of-the-art polymer-based drug delivery systems are produced using hot melt extrusion.
Over 1 year has now gone since I finished my PhD at JKU.  And now I have a clearer view of how the knowledge and experience which I have acquired during my Ph.D. can be applied to different areas of the plastics industry.
Below follow my favorite top 5 takeaways [1]:

Takeaway number #1: Powder processing on the plasticizing unit of an industrial injection moulding machine - “compounding on a single screw”

In order to process/mould the aforementioned polymer-API system (in pre-specified compositions) into the targeted tablet shaped drug delivery system two approaches were followed:

1) Conventional approach: Twin-screw compounding followed by injection moulding

Since both components of the drug delivery system were powders, a twin screw compounding process was at first used to obtain pellets in which the API was well dissolved within the polymer (first step).   Following, these pellets were successfully processed into tablets using a 50 ton ENGEL e-mac all-electric injection moulding machine with an 18 mm three section, reciprocating screw (second step). Such double-step procedure is conventionally chosen to deal with the joint processing of different powders.
2) 100% injection moulding

In an attempt to simplify the conventional approach, herein the above-described injection moulding machine was used to directly process both powders. To accomplish this, the common hopper was replaced by a combined hopper and gravimetric dosing unit where the (manually premixed) powders were placed.
The first challenge of this approach was to avoid undesirable agglomeration of the powders in the hopper due to the temperature gradients established at the start of the plasticizing process.  In order to minimize this phenomenon, the first section of the plasticizer unit (right after the hopper) was additionally air cooled.  This step permitted a stable plasticizing process.

The second challenge of this approach was to effectively mix and melt both powders during the plasticizing step utilizing the standard three section screw. The latter provided insufficient mixing capability for the processing of the studied system. As a result, solid powder could still be observed in the final tablets. To improve the powder mixing during the plasticizing process, the utilization of screws with additional mixing elements (e.g. pineapple mixer) was helpful.   

To sum up, elimination of the compounding step in powders processing may be feasible upon small adjustments in equipment, i.e. specific hopper and screw design. The first allowed sufficient powder transport into the feeding section without agglomeration, while the second facilitated melting and mixing of the different components.

Takeaway number #2: Design of the injection mould for drug delivery systems - “how to hit the 200k tablets per hour?”

The traditional tablets manufacturing process utilizes a tablet pressing machine capable of producing 200k tablets per hour in its small configuration. Nevertheless, the inherent processing of powders in such technology involves several steps, such as sizing, blending, drying, compression, etc. [2]. This results in increased overhead costs and lack of process flexibility.

The utilization of the injection moulding technique may allow the production of tablets with enhanced water solubility by one-step procedure. While such process may introduce added value in the tablet manufacturing industry, can it reach the benchmark productivity of 200k tablets per hour achieved by the well-established manufacturing process?

Within the project time two mould concepts based on 6 cavities (1 injection cycle produces 6 tablets) were tested: I) Central cold runner sprue (40 mm), star distributor and side gating;  II) Central hot-runner with open nozzle, star distribution and side gating with shorter distribution arms for more efficient ejection (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Moulded parts of the two investigated mould concepts.

These prototype mould concepts permitted the assessment of the feasibility of using injection moulding for the fabrication of useful tablets, i.e. where the drug is well dispersed within the polymer matrix. However, in a large-scale scenario moulds with a higher number of cavities and shorter flowing ways (to minimize unused material) would be obviously required.
A starting point for an upscale of this process would be, for example, assessing the possibility of utilizing a “Mini Hot-Runner System” (Günther-Heiβkanaltechnik GmbH). Here a top gating replaces the side gating and a mould with a greater number of cavities can be achieved with minimal material losses.  In a feasible production scenario, an injection mould with 128 cavities could be utilized on a barless all-electric injection moulding machine having a low clamping force (e.g. 1900 kN). For an estimated production cycle time of 8 seconds 57,600 tablets per hour could be obtained. In this scenario, 4 injection moulding machines would be necessary to compete with a small tablet pressing machine in terms of productivity.

Takeaway number #3: Numerical simulations of the drug distribution - “know where your drug will end up in the cavity”

Where is your API during the injection moulding process and finally in the ejected tablet? The use of numerical CFD simulations can help you to visualize the API along the process chain.
During my Ph.D., I utilized OpenFOAM simulations based on tailor-made particle tracking models to better understand the mixing in the metering section. Furthermore, I also utilized the injection moulding software Sigmasoft (Sigma Engineering GmbH) with the tracer function (coloured velocity vectors) for a straight-forward (virtual) visualization of the API distribution during the filling of the part holding the 6 cavities as well as in a single cavity.

Important to note is that a simulation is a simplification of the reality and, thus, additional experiments must also be performed to test its accuracy. For instances, I have performed colouring experiments that helped to make visible the velocity gradients during the filling process. These were then compared to the gradient estimated by the aforementioned simulations and an optical accordance could be found.

Takeaway number #4: Understanding the pharmaceutical industry markets - “get to know which markets grow the most”

My Ph.D. topic focused on poorly water-soluble drugs. Nevertheless, other type of drugs, such as psychotropic drugs, respectively antidepressants exhibit poor lipid solubility [5], which is also necessary for drugs to be absorbed by the human body.

According to Scientific American [5] the consumption of antidepressants among adults in USA was found to be four times higher in the late 2000’s compared to the early 1990’s. Researchers estimated that 8 to 10% of the USA population takes an antidepressant type.  

The development of novel polymer-based systems capable of efficiently delivering such drugs orally will certainly be objective of research in days to come. In this regard, utilization of injection moulding as a manufacturing technique of tablets may be of equal interest.

Takeaway number #5: Ideas for future application development - “polymer processing techniques wake up traditional pharmaceutical processing”

Promising innovations can simply arise from transferring established processes from one industry to another, even when these seem so unlikely to be combined, such as it happens with the plastics and pharmaceutical industries.
While Soluplus® and other related polymers (e.g. Kollidon®, Eudragit®, etc.) were purposefully designed to fulfill the requirements of the pharmaceutical industry in terms of drug delivery abilities, the utilization of suitable standard thermoplastics may be capable of totally disrupt such markets. For instances, it has been recently shown that thermoplastic polyurethanes (e.g. Tecophilic™ grades ) can be used as matrix excipients for the production of similar drug delivery systems (oral dosage forms) [3, 4].  The latter were produced by combining hot melt extrusion with injection moulding. Inherent advantages included formulations with high drug loads (65 %wt) and controlled release in vitro and in vivo.

I hope that these takeaways demonstrated that the use of an implemented polymer processing technique, such as injection moulding applied to a different industry (in this case, the pharmaceutical industry) can open up new problem solving capabilities which add value to our societies.
Till next time!


[1] Juster H., Numerical Simulation and Experimental Validation of Polymer Based Drug Delivery Systems Produced with Injection Moulding, PhD-thesis, 2015

[2] Fischer D., Breitenbach J., Die Pharmaindustrie: Einblick, Durchblick, Perspektiven, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2009

[3] Claeys B. et al., Thermoplastic polyurethanes for the manufacturing of highly dosed oral sustained release matrices via hot melt extrusion and injection molding, European Journal of Pharmaceutics and Biopharmaceutics, Volume 90, February 2015, Pages 44-52

[4] Verstraete G., et al., Hydrophilic thermoplastic polyurethanes for the manufacturing of highly dosed oral sustained release matrices via hot melt extrusion and injection molding, Int J Pharm. 2016 Jun 15;506(1-2):214-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpharm.2016.04.057.