Tuesday 31 March 2020

Lights Out Moulding: Covid-19 Crisis as Stress Test for Industry 4.0

Last year in my blog post about the second wave of digitalization, I discussed the entering of Artificial Intelligence (AI), platform-based business models („platform economies“) and mobility solutions into plastics companies and their value chains. Back in 2015, I also presented in one of my posts the concept of Cyber Physical Production Systems (CPPS) and Industrial Internet of Things (IoT). In the meanwhile, companies have picked up one or the other concept and started to digitalize their operations. The “holy grail” of CPPS is a complete autonomous production, which is also referred to as lights-out manufacturing. In this concept, companies can easier set up their production facilities anywhere in the world closer to the end customer.

A recent example of lights out manufacturing is the Michigan based moulder company, Grand Traverse Plastics Corp, which focuses on engine and rocker covers, oil fill tube caps and assemblies, and engine and transmission parts. Grand Traverse Plastics Corp has recently invested 1.5 million USD to get their injection moulding facility into lights-out manufacturing. Among the investments were fully electric moulding machines and several five- and six-axis robots. Furthermore, automated material handling and box conveyor systems were planned for installation as well. In this production scenario, few tasks are still left for manual labor, i.e. the boxes with the moulded parts need to be moved into shipping and a quality performance employee needs to check part samples using an offline optical inspection system.

What about tool makers?
Injection moulding tools play a key role in the lights out moulding. Mould monitoring is a key element in a digitalization strategy. The company Digital Mould GmbH from Austria developed such a monitoring system, which was presented last year at the K fair in Germany. Tool making itself is not yet a lights out manufacturing, however big steps are also done in this area. Tool design and simulations can already be done remotely. I expect simple tools to be done fully automatically soon as well.

In the current pandemic situation, companies experience a dramatic reduction of purchase orders on one hand, but also an impactful reduction of their production capabilities due to a reduction of the manpower availability, i.e. less people permitted at the shop floor simultaneously so that safety regulations can be fulfilled as well as many employees laid off for being considered “at high risk” if infected. In the current scenario, companies relying on lights out manufacturing concepts can better ensure the supply of parts due to their higher level of automation. Also, in a normal scenario, the lights-out manufacturing installation allows companies to grow their business due to productivity gains.

Our economy will recover – when and how long it will take remains an open question. Digitalization of the plastics industry will be even more necessary after such significant events.
Thank you for reading!
Till next time, Herwig

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1. https://www.plasticsnews.com/news/michigan-molder-invests-lights-out-production-seeks-expansion?utm_source=pn-automotive-report&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200316&utm_content=article3-headline
2. https://www.k-zeitung.de/joint-venture-von-haidlmair-und-hofmann/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign&utm_content=Haidlmair

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