NPE 2018 Post-Show Report: Industry 4.0 is the Key to Smarter Plastics Manufacturing

I had the opportunity to discuss ways the plastics industry can meet these challenges during the NPE 2018: The Plastics Show in Orlando last month. I presented on how Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can help the industry transform standard processes, such as machining and molding, into highly efficient high-tech operations.

The world wants more plastics. That’s a good thing for the industry but also means manufacturers need better problem-solving capabilities. They need to find ways to produce materials faster and cleaner.

Plastics manufacturers need to adopt IIoT technologies to keep pace with unprecedented demand.  Global demand for polyethylene (PE), the most widely used plastic, is expected to reach 120 million metric tons (MMT) by 2022, up from 96 MMT in 2017, according to IHS Markit. Demand spikes are common across many industries, but the plastics sector faces additional challenges.

New Demands, Same Challenges

While the surging demand for plastics may be new, the challenges faced by processors have remained the same for decades: make more products, faster and cheaper, with less material waste. As Nick Vafiadis, Vice President of Plastics for IHS Markit, put it, “the industry must find ways to produce more with less.”

“Global demand for PE has been robust, and integrated margins have remained at elevated levels for several years, despite record new additions of cost-competitive capacity being added in North America and elsewhere. It is this robust demand growth, combined with production constraints, that continues to drive tight PE margins,” Vafiadis said.

The IIoT Factor

During NPE 2018, we fielded numerous questions about the role Industry 4.0 and IIoT will play in the future of plastics. IIoT helps plastics manufacturers monitor valuable metrics in real time that can help improve production, eliminate waste and improve product quality. This is critical because the introduction of new materials and processes can add complexity to production and create a competitive disadvantage for manufacturers that lack transparency into their operations.

A recent article in Plastics Technology highlighted some of the key ways Industry 4.0 will impact the plastics industry, including the application of “smart molding” and extrusion processing solutions, as well as predictive maintenance monitoring of cell equipment.

For example, Wittmann Battenfeld, a manufacturer of plastic processors, has incorporated Industry 4.0 capabilities into its products, including the ability to monitor gripper vacuum levels to warn of leaks or other problems before the robot loses its grip. Color-coded operating-status lights on Wittmann robots indicate whether vacuum levels are adequate (green), in the warning zone (yellow) or too low to hold the part (red).

During the show, several plastics machinery manufacturers debuted base-level IIoT solutions to help customers increase efficiencies. While they were similar to connected solutions we’ve discussed in the past, they lacked the data processing power, ease of use, and full process analytics of Oden Technologies.

Oden can affix small wireless IoT devices to machines or PLCs that can send critical data to a cloud-based analytics platform. Whether it’s maintenance data or overall equipment effectiveness, this connected environment provides a fast, single source of truth about critical production variables.

It’s clear that modern-day demands mean plastics manufacturers must find new ways to gain a competitive edge. IIoT helps manufacturers identify waste streams and inefficiencies faster. It also automates many manual tasks, which frees key personnel, such as engineers and operations managers, to focus on meeting modern-day demands.

Don’t view these new global pressures as a threat. If you’re a plastics manufacturer, consider how IIoT could help you gain an advantage in this increasingly competitive marketplace.