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Smarter auxiliary equipment will excel in the short run; flexibility will be the key to the quick-change environment of the '90s.

Smarter Auxiliary Equipment Will Excel in the Short Run

Flexibility will be the key to the quick-change environment of the '90s. Increased control sophistication will be more evident than changes in basic hardware.

Materials-handling and granulating auxiliaries of the late 1990s may not look much different from those you are familiar with today. But they will pack more electronic intelligence "under the hood," enabling them, to work within the Flexible Manufacturing Systems that will proliferate in an environment of Just-in-Time, short-run, quick-changeover, and maybe even "lights-out" processing.

Integrated control of entire production cells, and the ability to make quick changes of already dried materials, will take on greater importance because of the growing need to run small quantities of many different materials or colors on a day-by-day basis. "If you're changing from one hygroscopic material to another and you can save 3 3/4 hr of production time at $150/hr machine time, that's a lot of money," says Donald D. Rainville, president of Universal Dynamics, Woodbridge, Va.

Manufacturers of auxiliary equipment see no revolutionary mechanical changes in store for the foreseeable future. Rather, they say innovation will show up mostly in the electronic controls that run the equipment. Expert mainly subtle changes to the basic machinery, aimed at improving durability and at facilitating quick cleanout, they say.

However subtle or invisible from the outside, these anticipated changes in mechanical and electronic features, suppliers say, will be of no small consequence to processors. Rather, they will help drive home the argument many suppliers have been making for a long time--careful selection of the best auxiliary equipment is not a frill but a necessity for competing successfully in today's processing marketplace. "Profitability has become so dependent on this equipment that it is now mandatory and no longer a luxury," asserts Phil Richert, director of marketing for AEC Inc., Wood Dale, Ill.

And with a growing number of processors realizing the importance of auxiliary equipment, more are finding they need a custom-made system to suit their particular needs. This increasing need to customize will undoubtedly lead to more exchanging of ideas between manufacturers and their customers, giving each a better understanding of what the other wants. "In the future I think we're going to have to understand the processor more," says Charles E. Morgan, product sales manager for Conair Franklin, Franklin, Pa. "I don't think people can keep designing equipment in the dark."

Auxiliary equipment manufacturers say their discussions with processors have led them to formulate opinions and conclusions about where their R&D needs to be directed in the coming decade. Their thoughts on several major categories of auxiliary equipment follow.


For years, the telecommunications industry has known the potential of fiber optics--strands of glass no wider than a human hair but capable of carrying thousands of bits of data via light waves. Now, at least one auxiliary equipment supplier is on the verge of introducing fiber-optic controls for its machines. "The cost of the technology is beginning to tumble," observes Universal Dynamics' Rainville. "We're simply taking advantage of that," If successful, UnaDyn will have found a way to eliminate some common problems associated with conventional control wiring. First, fiber optics are immune to electromagnetic "noise" interference from radios an nearby electronic instruments--interference that can affect the controls' proper operation. Second, they will eliminate the bulky wires used to connect controllers to machines.

Fiber optics is just one of the new technologies being investigated by auxiliary equipment manufacturers with an eye toward the future. Most suppliers agree that the ultimate goal is to build a controller with so-called artificial intelligence, enabling it to identify a problem, analyze it, and then take the necessary steps to correct the trouble. The other major goal, and one that is sure to be perfected in the '90s, is to integrate the auxiliary equipment controller with that of primary machines so that one "box" runs all associated equipment components in a production "cell."

Equipment suppliers are moving rapidly to adopt a standard communication protocol, developed by SPI's Machinery Div., to permit all makes of auxiliary equipment to communicate on a plug-in basis with all makes of molding and extrusion machines (see accompanying table). Even Cincinnati Milacron's Plastics Machinery Div., Batavia, Ohio, which developed its own protocol five years ago and has been marketing a line of auxiliary equipment fully compatible with its molding machines and extruders, has now switched to the SPI protocol. Auxiliary equipment suppliers say the coming decade may see more alliances between their companies and manufacturers of primary equipment to facilitate installation of smooth-running, integrated production systems.

It stands to reason that as controllers are capable of running the entire production process, they will have to be increasingly versatile and expandable. AEC, for instance, is one of a number of suppliers that has designed its controllers to run any piece of equipment the company manufacturers, as well as being able to accept pop-in electronic modules if a user wants to expand his operation using the same controller.

But with the increasing sophistication of controls comes an inherent problem--keeping them at a level of understandability where machine operators will not be frightened away from using them. "As we make the systems more sophisticated, it's essential that we make the controls more users-friendly," says David H. Wilson, v.p. and director of the K-Tron Institute of Feeder Technology, Pitman, N.J.

Designers of control panels say this is a consideration that guides their thinking when laying out a new panel, since the average machine operator does not possess a high level of mathematical skill. In fact, a study cited in a recent issue of Production magazine contends that half of all 18-yr-old Americans have not mastered basic math or literacy skills. And with 23 million people (25% of the work force) in the U.S. already considered functionally illiterate, continuing that trend could translate into a 50% illiteracy rate by the turn of the century.

Compounding the problem and making it more important than ever that electronic controls be easy to understand is a projection that by the year 2000 22% of labor force growth will be non-English speaking immigrants.

To deal with these problems, control builders are rushing to simplify their controls. K-Tron's Wilson, for instance, says his company is looking into developing graphical rather than alphanumeric controls for its weighing and blending equipment. These controls, which would use colors and shapes to denote functions, would accommodate the poor literacy of entry-level operators and lead to international compatibility, Wilson says.

K-Tron and others are also looking at "expert system" software for their controls that would reduce the number of decisions operators have to make for themselves.


As controls increase in number of functions and versatility, so will the conveying systems they run, suppliers say. The bottom line will still be moving material to the right places as quickly as possible, but a new wrinkle will be added--how many different materials can be supplied in a speedy fashion to numerous machines? And how quickly can secondary processing equipment be cleaned and ready to accept a new material? Moves toward JIT and "lights-out" manufacturing are making quick material changes almost mandatory in the modern processing plant, many suppliers and processors contend.

A number of companies are already taking steps to keep pace with these manufacturing trends. Just about every builder of hoppers and loaders is touting its product's quick-and-easy-to-clean design. Others are designing more versatile conveying systems to keep pace with what they see as the growing need for quick material changes (see PT, Oct. '89. p. 56). Companies such as Novatec Inc., Baltimore, have developed controllers to run systems that simultaneously deliver an array of different materials to 40 or 50 processing machines.

In the past year, suppliers such as Motan Inc. in Kalamazoo, Mich., Comet Automation Systems Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, and Universal Dynamics have introduced small machine-mounted hoppers that combine the functions of a larger machine hopper and a vacuum loader into one unit. These manufacturers say a major part of their product line in the next two or three years will derive from these units, which hold small quantities of material, can be wiped clean in a few minutes, and have quick-disconnect valves from material feed lines to facilitate rapid resin changes.

The slew of new engineering resins introduced over the past few years, as well as the push toward recycling and emphasis on using more regrind in new products, are also guiding the thinking of conveying equipment manufacturers. "More sophisticated equipment will be needed than anything the processor is using now," predicts Bruce Lowden, general marketing manager for K-Tron Vertech, Pitman, N.J. "In the '90s, higher tech equipment to handle the higher tech materials will be needed in order to stay competitive."

Increased reliance on stainless steel and polished aluminum to prevent material sticking to hoppers, redesigned filters to trap more dust and fines, and complex blending systems for mixing regrind and virgin will be just a few of the trends the industry will see in the coming years, suppliers say. "I can see us getting to a point where pneumatic conveying won't work any more," says Robert C. Barlow, materials handling manager for Novatec. "Some of these new materials may have to be conveyed mechanically."


Fitting in with these trends is the need for more versatile blending and feeding equipment. "Instead of 30,000lb runs, people using engineering plastics are now running 500 lb at a time," says Kevin Bowen, president of the domestic feeder group for K-Tron. "They need to take this equipment apart and clean it out as fast as they can."

Taking this idea one step further, suppliers such as K-Tron say the 1990s will see more flexible blending equipment, giving processors the ability to move different materials at speeds best suited for a particular formulation. These new blenders (many of which will be modular) will allow processors to change the range of feed rates simply by flipping gears. Changing agitators or feeder modules will further expand the equipment's flexibility, allowing users to handle several completely different materials with the same blender.

"Low-rate feeding will become more popular as more processors want flexibility of adding and mixing many different additives," says Frank Russo, v.p. of marketing for Acrison, Inc., Moonachie, N.J. "What we're seeing are requirements to feed very accurately and in real short durations." To meet this need, which seeks to eliminate masterbatching, Acrison recently introduced its 406-BDFM, a triple-auger unit with quick disconnects that can provide feed rates from 0.25 lb/hr to several hundred lb/hr (see PT, Sept. '90, p.118).

This need for shorter runs and higher accuracy over a wider performance range, coupled with the increasing number of requests from end users for documentation verifying parts quality, leads Russo and other feeder and blender manufacturers to speculate that gravimetrics will be the dominant technology in the coming years. For a growing number of processors, this has meant having to provide data on the amounts of all ingredients used to make their parts. These processors are finding it worth their while to use more costly gravimetrics to provide this SPC data. "Gravimetrics are paying for themselves through the material savings and improved product quality they provide," says Rob Northrup, marketing and sales manager for Process Control Corp., Atlanta.

Still, suppliers say, the increasing reliance on gravimetric blending will not spell death for volumetrics since there are still thousands of processors making products or parts that don't require rigid adherence to precise formulas and detailed information about the blending process. "The requirements being put upon molders are forcing many of them to get into gravimetrics whether they need it or not," asserts Richard Hatherley, general sales manager for HydReclaim Corp., Fenton, Mich. "Some people are afraid of computers, so I think there will always be a need for volumetric blending."

The trend for the future then, some suppliers say, will be a sort of combined volumetric/gravimetric blender that gives gravimetric accuracy with a microprocessor-based volumetric controller. One such unit recently introduced into the marketplace comes from Universal Dynamics. The heart of the blender is in its computer control, which divides each rotation of an auger screw into 540 segments for greater precision. After the user programs the percentage of each additive to be blended, the controller will automatically add in the correct percentage of virgin resin. The controller can also be programmed to monitor the amount of regrind added to the mixture, adjusting the portions of virgin and additives accordingly.


As America's fervor to recycle continues into the 1990s, many manufacturers of scrap reclaim equipment are jumping on the bandwagon, focusing more attention on post-consumer waste. "In-plant, beside-the-press reclaim applications will still be there," says Ted Mahan, director of operations for Herbold Granulators USA Inc., Sutton, Mass. "But post-consumer scrap equipment is developing much faster right now."

What that means for the future is a more systems-oriented approach to scrap reclaim. And as more companies venture into post-consumer recycling, suppliers will be asked to supply an increasing number of closed-loop systems that take the plastic from discarded product all the way to pelletized regrind. Evidence of the boom in post-consumer recycling can be found in sales figures recently released by Nelmor Co., Inc., div. of AEC, Inc., North Uxbridge, Mass. In the first six months of 1990, says Edward Ronca, v.p. of sales and marketing, Nelmor exceeded its full-year sales forecast for post-consumer recycling equipment by 30%. Ronca projects that Nelmor's sales in this category will exceed its forecast by 126% by year's end, and will grow another 200-350% by the middle of the decade.

While Ronca is among the majority of granulator manufacturers who see continued growth in post-consumer machinery, others are not as certain of its future. "We see a limited market for post-consumer recycling systems," says Robert M. Ragosta, granulator marketing manager for the Cumberland Engineering Div. of John Brown Inc., Providence, R.I. "Can a small operator really invest $1 million to get a system like this going?"

Ragosta and others contend that post-consumer recycling will not take off until broader end-use markets are found for recycled plastics or more versatile equipment is developed, increasing the economic feasibility of the recycling process. "If a system could be developed where all the materials are ground together and then separated that would be a major step," he said.

In the meantime, the main trends in granulator development will be aimed at energy efficiency, ease of cleaning and other user conveniences, suppliers say. Possibly one of the more significant recent granulator innovations is the new double-edged blades from Nelmor and Rapid Granulator, Inc., Rockford, Ill. These two-sided blades can be flipped over after one cutting edge gets dull, doubling the time interval before resharpening or replacement. Nelmor's resharpenable blades are also made of a special steel which preliminary tests have shown to last about two-and-a-half times as long as standard blades. Rapid's version of the two-edged blade (introduced on an auger grinder at NPE '88) is meant to be disposable after both edges become dull. With Nelmor's approach, you adjust the bed knives, but not the rotor blades, to make up for wear when you flip over or replace a blade. Rapid says its system eliminates the need for knife adjustment altogether, since the blade is clamped in a fixed position.


Several steps are being taken to increase granulators' energy efficiency. More suppliers are now leaning toward slow-speed granulators coupled with shredders that break the scrap into smaller parts, requiring less energy to be spent by the granulator. And they're quieter, too (see PT, Oct. '87, p. 85). These machines are designed not just to reduce energy and noise, but to reduce the amount of fines generated and increase the quality of regrind. Herbold has developed a 45 [degrees]-angled cutting chamber that Mahan says generates less heat, extends blade life, generates less fines, and uses about half the horsepower of conventional machines.

"Customers now are more concerned with the quality of regrind," Nelmor's Ronca says. "They want a machine tailored to their application rather than just some off-the-shelf machine." Adds Vincent T. Berger, director of sales for Rapid Granulator, "Today's feeling that a granulator is a granulator is a granulator will not be true any more."

As a result of the demand for increased versatility, suppliers such as Granutec Inc., East Douglas, Mass., have been including adjustable-speed rotors on their machines that can be programmed to run from 1 to 600 rpm, depending on the size of the parts or the material being granulated.

"The majority of all the granulators we sell now and probably in the future will have some sort of custom-made part," says Bruce Bowman, v.p. of sales and marketing for Polymer Machinery, Berlin, Conn. "Whether it be the throat, the blades or the feeder, everyone wants something suited to their particular needs."

And, like every other end of the business, granulators are being affected by more sophisticated controls. However, not everyone is convinced that's what the industry needs. "Five, maybe 10% of the processors are looking for that," Herbold's Mahan says. "Most are simply looking for something cost-effective and easy to operate and service--and that's it."


While there's a growing interest in the just-emerging technology for microwave drying of plastics, most dryer manufacturers plan to rely on conventional desiccant drying for the immediate future. "I can see microwave being a definite plus eventually," says John Robertson, sales manager for Cactus Machinery Inc., Markham, Ontario. "But I can't see it in the next five years. The cost is going to have to come down if it is going to be practical."

Robertson is not alone in his thinking. While most dryer manufacturers say they would like to explore microwaves at some point during the coming decade, all admit the current cost of the technology will make it prohibitive for processors to purchase. Added to that, they say, are other problems that have to be overcome before microwave drying is to become a reality (see PT, Oct. '89 for a thorough review of the subject).

"Not all plastics react the same way to microwave heating," argues Charles Sears, president of Dri-Air Industries, Vernon, Conn. "Once you go beyond PET, it gets much more difficult to dry the material."

The argument for microwaves is that they are more efficient than conventional drying technology and are considered to be ideal for PET because they can both dry the material and crystallize it. However, Sears and other dryer manufacturers say the life of the microwave generator is finite and as it reaches the end of its life, its efficiency decreases dramatically.

"There are probably ways to make them more efficient," says John W. Doub, v.p. and general manager of Novatec. "But you're talking about such a small savings that the cost to do it would probably offset the added efficiency."

One alternative to the conventional desiccant dryer that may be cloned in the '90s is the dehumidifying dryers currently being made by HydReclaim and Matsui America, Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill. At the heart of these dryers is a fiberglass-substrate "honeycomb" wheel containing the same molecular sieve found in normal desiccant dryers. Because of its size, this wheel increases the drying area and allows air to be re-generated at about 480-570 F, or half to two-thirds the temperature of conventional dryers. "It results in very dramatic savings--on average, about 25%," says HydReclaim's Hatherley.

And just like every other area of auxiliary equipment, resin drying will be affected by JIT and short-run manufacturing trends. What dryer manufacturers think might prove popular are portable self-contained drying units that can be wheeled into place beside a machine when needed. These units, which can dry as much as 200 lb/hr, will be dedicated to specific materials, not machines as in the past; and suppliers say they will usually be able to simultaneously deliver material to two or more machines.

PHOTO : More auxiliary equipment controls in the next decade will be integrated with those of

PHOTO : primary machinery, enabling one control unit to run an entire production cell. (Photo:

PHOTO : Cincinnati Milacron)

PHOTO : An underground network of pneumatic tubes from Novatec Inc. is just one of the novel

PHOTO : approaches designers of conveying systems are using to meet the quick-materials-changing

PHOTO : requirements of JIT manufacturing.

PHOTO : Increasing emphasis on verifiable quality is forcing many processors to rely on

PHOTO : gravimetric blenders to supply them with the necessary SPC/SQC data. (Photo: AccuRate

PHOTO : Inc.)

PHOTO : As the need for quick changeovers becomes more vital, machinery suppliers are designing

PHOTO : equipment for speedy cleaning and service. This modular blender from K-Tron can be quickly

PHOTO : switched from a single-screw to a twin-screw.

PHOTO : Versatile feeders that can vary the rate of material delivery will see more use in coming

PHOTO : years. This AccuRate feeder can deliver material at rates from 25lb/hr to 45,000lb/hr.

PHOTO : Accuracy will be more important than ever in the `Quality Decade'. Controls on this

PHOTO : blender from Universal Dynamics Corp. ensure greater precision by dividing each rotation

PHOTO : of the unit's auger screw into 540 segments.

PHOTO : Growing interest in post-consumer scrap recovery will see granulator suppliers offering

PHOTO : total recycling packages that include larger machines like this Herbold sheet with special

PHOTO : in-feed rolls that automatically adjust to the thickness of various sheets.

PHOTO : The '90s will see granulators with dual-edged, re-sharpenable knives made of super-durable

PHOTO : steel that can last up to five times longer than conventional one-sided knives. (Photo:

PHOTO : AEC Nelmor Div.)
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Author:Monks, Richard
Publication:Plastics Technology
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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