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Finding Quantity and Quality
by Norton Kaplan, Automated Assemblies Corporation

Technology Feature

Making Your Automation Solution Meet Today's Demand and Drive a Competitive Future

In order for a plastics processor to survive in the United States, he must always be thinking lean, and on the lookout for efficiency. With pressure coming from foreign molders, he must manufacture quality products in great quantity, and face the everyday challenge of “standing out” on a crowded retail shelf. It’s no secret that packaging and decorating have become critical product development areas that can literally “make or break” a product. In order to help processors meet these difficult demands, automation systems manufacturers have responded with sophisticated, flexible, agile workcells and robotics solutions that offer US-based manufacturers a competitive advantage in a tough market environment.

Quantity and Quality
Those driving automated workcell innovations are the packaging, medical device, automotive, and telecommunications markets. Each of these industries has unique needs, but a commonality in the desire to integrate the mold, decorating, and packaging functions into one lean, high quality operation. Historically, it has been the European manufacturers and machinery suppliers that have provided the impetus and technology to meet the demand for robotic solutions. Today, the savvy US processor is investing in automated solutions to maintain a competitive posture in the pressurized plastics processing arena.

With machinery driving faster cycle times and higher cavitation molds, it is essential that a processor’s downstream processes keep pace with production. In the past, the way a manufacturer did this was to employ more operators to keep up. But, in the choice-driven consumer marketplace simply keeping up is not enough. Flexibility is what keeps an operation profitable, and ahead of packaging and decorating trends. This is where quality must keep up with quantity. An example of finding efficiencies in a process is found in labeling; consistency, accuracy, and the labor element of operator-to-operator subjective variability can create products that bear similar markings yet look different. Coupling that with product changeover within a given manufacturing cycle, and the operator’s ability to implement change, the result can be an operation that compromises quality and consistency. US production depends on higher quality results, faster, with a high yield.

Flexibility is a growing industry trend. The ability to jump from one program to the next, reacting to seasonal, proprietary, or private labeling demands, and being able to vary content, size and volume is a core competency that molders must face. These factors have made In-Mold Decorating (IMD) and In-Mold Labeling (IML) a capability that more and more corporations are requiring from their suppliers. Some reasons for the demand are growing consumer desire to know what is in the package they are purchasing plus what the package is made of; requirements for recycling information and ingredients; lastly, eye-catching graphics necessitate a wide array of messages to be placed on products before they make it to the shelf. Decoration has evolved to include information, and IMD/IML allow the molder to complete this crucial step at the same time that the product is being molded. Hot stamping, pad printing, screen printing and adhesive labels, each with their benefits and drawbacks, are increasingly being used for specialized applications because IMD/IML yields quality finish results much faster while offering wider design parameters to designers.

Speed and Flexibility
Reducing waste is the mantra of any processor. Traditional labeling steps mean that changeovers waste time, as the operator often has to purge systems, make preliminary runs, and “ease in” the new run. With IMD capabilities coupled with an injection molding specific automation workcell, product-to-product changeovers can be completed in one cycle. This means that promotions, seasonal products, labeling on the same product with different packaging can be achieved very quickly. Technologies have improved to allow flat labels, flat labels on multiple surfaces, and even contoured labels on dimensional multi-surface packages to be manufactured in far less time and with better results.

Since eye appeal is so vital in the consumer product arena, offering a package that has “sizzle” or “pop” can make the difference between success and failure. With automated IMD/IML capabilities, a processor can compete for shelf space with magazine-quality printing and flexible graphics generation. Since these are very flexible processes, it is even possible to run production of very low numbers to meet a niche or targeted audience. This is possible with very minor modifications to the molds or tooling, meaning that IML /IMD technology is downwardly compatible into an existing product line. For example, it is possible to take a commodity molded product like patio furniture, add promotional labeling or graphics to it, and take it to market as a new product with features that appeal to a new category of consumers (and at a better price).

Molders with IML or IMD capabilities can essentially eliminate costly and time consuming secondary operations that were, until now, accepted cost centers. With product designers pushing for holistic production all under one roof for reasons of time-to-market and pricing pressures, making the product, packaging, labeling and decoration and even assembly processes available in one turnkey package means that the costs of labor, waste, and transportation (eliminating shipping to another facility for decoration or assembly) are no longer in the balance sheet. Improved quality and speed plus the advantages of being proximal to the point of purchase means that processors in the US hold an advantage over their foreign competition, even in the automotive marketplace where subassemblies are shipped off-shore for completion.

Technology Trends
The current workcell solution of choice to meet IML and IMD demands for the packaging, medical, automotive and telecommunications market are workcell solutions based on side entry high performance servo robots. Most processors opt to include pre and post molding vision inspection systems to assure quality-finished goods. Well suited for numerous applications such as automotive/electrical part insert molding, medical part inspection and packaging, telecommunication IML/IMD and pre and post mold inspection functions, these workcell solutions feature PC based open architecture controllers.

Vision systems are increasingly popular because they offer accurate and relatively low cost 6 Sigma production solutions. Vision capabilities can remotely check and verify critical dimension variances, surface finish, gate vestige and edge finish, provide mold cavity inspection, part length plus I.D. and O.D. tolerances, check for contaminates, verify overmolds, inspect pre-printed logos and position and conduct dimensional inspections.

US Molders are under great pressure to find economically viable ways to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Automation, and innovative packaging and information displays are ways to both improve a company’s bottom line and boost consumer demand. Efficiency, throughput, and quality are the key ways a North American manufacturer can not only survive, but also thrive, in a tough marketplace.

Automated Assemblies Corporation is one of the plastics injection molding industry’s leading designers and manufacturers of robotic and workcell solutions with products sold under the trademarked name Raptor®. The firm offers comprehensive plant automation audit services to help firms determine ways to improve productivity and profits along with an eye toward a quick return on this investment. For further information on Automated workcell solutions, contact Automated Assemblies Corporation, 25 School Street, Clinton, MA 01510, Tel: (978) 368-8914 Fax: (978) 368-0986 or visit: