If you represent a manufacturer or a logistics company, you’re probably wondering what the latest advancements in technology mean for molding. If that’s the case, you’re taking part in a manufacturing revolution that’s been in progress since 1986. That year marked the first known case of multiple injection-molding machines being networked together for central computer control.
Networking our machines together and automating production equipment is nothing new, then. However, it’s also just the beginning of what Industry 4.0 has to offer the plastics and molding industries.
What’s Industry 4.0 For?
More specifically — who is it for? As it turns out, it’s for everybody. Molding plants staff many specialists, each one tasked with measuring current capacity against real-time demand, identifying problems as proactively as possible, and maintaining an awareness of the larger facility and the conditions within.
You know only too well how many variables there can be, given how many resin types you may be working with and what the final use of the product might be — or even which industry it’s destined for.
Industry 4.0 is foremost about collecting data from each of these processes and workflows. Then, it’s about coming to actionable conclusions. What does this process of ongoing optimization look like, in practice? Which technologies are helping to expose all this data and “un-silo” each of the processes within manufacturing and distribution?
There are a few basic tenets of Industry 4.0 as they apply to molding facilities. Here are the main objectives:
The goal of all technology is to remove human beings from harm’s way and from processes that are susceptible, or sensitive, to error. Injection-molding technicians aren’t set to become obsolete — but their required skills and daily work might change as the equipment becomes more autonomous. Some parts of the country have actually had injection-molding labor shortages over the last couple of years.
Which Technologies Are Bringing Industry 4.0 to Injection-Molding?
Industry 4.0 for molding means facilities everywhere are enjoying the benefits of technologies like these:
Together, these technologies lend themselves well to another end goal of Industry 4.0: customization.
How Industry 4.0 Will Deliver Mass Customization in the Plastics Industry
The dream of cost-effective mass customization — the ability to create large runs of parts with minor variations and customizations — has been a long time coming.
Thanks to the advantages of networking, new production methods and better control of, and communication between, different parts of the manufacturing process, new benchmarks for product customizability and complexity are being reached all the time. This is being done by injection-molding and 3D printing separately as well as together.
Amazingly, some production facilities are even pioneering ways to embed manufacturing instructions directly into parts and workpieces. Consider this very real example of a production facility making use of currently-available Industry 4.0 technologies:
There are many exciting variations of this general idea, as well as a variety of other, wholly different workflows you can take advantage of. This isn’t far-future stuff, either. Many of these examples are already seeing implementation in production facilities throughout the world.
Industry 4.0 Also Means Traceability and Accountability in a Global World
The ability for robotics technologies to precisely place communication tags and microchips into a wide variety of plastic products doesn’t just make it easier to mold, customize and ship that product. There are also benefits regarding traceability and accountability.
The near-field communication or RFID tag providing manufacturing instructions may also house information about that product’s point of origin — down to the equipment and any human inspector that may have come into contact with it. In this way, Industry 4.0 provides a solution to one of the oldest, and also most urgent, problems in manufacturing: part traceability.
Worries over counterfeit parts are a common refrain in multiple industries today. Plastic products, including industry-grade medical devices and automotive parts, can be manufactured and shipped from anyplace in the world. Having the means to confirm the origin of high-stakes or high-tolerance parts delivers invaluable peace of mind to the plastics community.
Industry 4.0 Is Not a Product
Companies won’t make the most of Industry 4.0 by shopping for solutions — they began with a problem to solve or a vision to fulfill. Technology has caught up with some of that vision, finally.
Article by —
Megan Ray Nichols
Freelance Science Writer
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