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Plastics Processing 4.0: Opportunities and Challenges

With the increasing digitization in broad areas of society and economy, the vision of "Industry 4.0" has emerged. Both in numerous publications and events as well as in already extensively realized research and industrial projects, the possibilities of "Industry 4.0" have been explained and initial results have been practically achieved.


Despite a positive balance sheet, we must state today that digital transformation is only hesitantly accepted in production plants. This fact is documented in numerous studies. This also generally includes the plastics industry. This is not surprising since the one and only "4.0 solution" for the plastics industry does not exist. However, compared to other industries, the plastics / packaging / printing industry is offering numerous standardized interfaces for easy system integration. That is a great opportunity shaping the way for more generic solutions.

The Vision of Industrie 4.0

In essence, Industry 4.0 means the technical integration of innovative technologies in production and logistics, using the Internet of Things and Services. Processes are intelligently networked with one another. Production equipment, machines, products and operators exchange information relevant to each other. Depending on the situation machines get the ability to configure themselves according to their task. This will show an immediate impact on the production processes and ultimately on the overall effectiveness of the machine / plant. This degree of automation leads to a versatile and resource-efficient value creation. Process information and knowledge become competitive business assets. However, not every industry provides the necessary prerequisites for a complete digital penetration of the value chain. In the plastics industry, for example, it is important to offer specifically workable solutions for the robust production environment, which safeguard and optimize the diverse work processes step by step, without neglecting the peculiarities and unique selling points. But how can one realize the objective "Industry 4.0" in the robust production environment of a plastics processing plant and what advantages can be offered to the metalworking industry with regard to the current trends?

Flexibility of Production and Work

One of the challenges is the steadily increasing level of responsibility in the market, as it has already been the case in recent years. Production fluctuations and shorter production runs (golden batch) will increasingly affect the day-to-day business of the future. Targeted flexibility in production work is therefore a must. In addition to the realization of a high flexibility in work and time, it is also important to create an order-related dynamic for the workforce. Order peaks must, for example, be compensated by the seasonal increase by the employee base. Then there also is the challenge of a radical demographic change. The share of the 50+ generation in the workforce will grow steadily from 25% in the next 10 years to 35%. At the same time, the recruitment of skilled workers is slowing down. A condition that 84% of companies in the plastics industry already complain about today. The working world will eventually have to change fundamentally. Against the background of demographic change, value creation must succeed in the future with older and non-specialist employees.

The world of work is becoming more heterogeneous in terms of educational opportunities, cultural background, employment level, age and health status. New work systems have to meet these requirements. We need to support the professionals we have with technical learning and assistance systems directly in the workplace and at the machine. This is how we enable them to work more effectively; interim / seasonal specialists can proceed faster through their learning curve. The integration of intelligent assistance systems, in combination with new qualification methods, enables the plastics business to have the necessary flexibility in production and work to be internationally competitive. There are numerous possibilities of assistance systems, which can be used directly in the work process or detached from the actual work activity for the qualification of the employees. One example is the use of digitized instruction which the worker can find on a mobile tablet PC. With tablets or other mobile devices, the employee can also find out about the upcoming work task, prepare for it individually and at the same time use it as an accompanying assistance system directly during work execution. Process information and instructions can be accessed directly via the mobile device and support the employee in his activities. The technological prerequisites required for this are already available today in the majority of the plastics processing plants. Process parameters are automatically recorded, evaluated and made available via linked information systems. The extension of these systems for the purposeful use of intelligent assistance systems is the logical consequence.

Intelligent Automation

In addition to the introduction of intelligent work and assistance systems, it is important to optimize the production process itself. However, plastics processing machinery are only partially comparable with other producing industries due to the complex interdependencies of environmental variables and the processes. In order to master these processes, it is necessary to introduce multiple benchmarks. If knowledge can be generated from this wealth of data, we can not only better understand it, but also control it online, depending on the conditions. Through a continuous review of the relevant process parameters, we increase the efficiency of the production and the quality of the products. The measured values ​​obtained can be used to map and simulate control loops with current process information - a prerequisite for intelligent process monitoring and control. In the age of Industry 4.0, such an expanded understanding of the process increases process reliability and, ultimately, the necessary profitability of the plastics processing plants. The capital expenditures to be invested, e.g. in modern measuring and testing systems are manageable - opportunities and benefits for the plant are much greater. Innovative measurement technologies today offer more options for process monitoring than ever before. A continuous, sensor-based comparison of target values ​​and actual values ​​of process-relevant parameters in real time represents a significant step towards quality-controlled casting production. The collected information can be output to the employee directly on his mobile assistance systems located at the workstation and supplemented in the case of deviating process variables with recommended actions. Reaction times to unwanted fluctuations in production are shortened and processes are kept at a level that is both qualitative and economically high.

Energy Efficiency

Producing economically does not just mean being aware of the processes. It also means making the use of energy sources - sustainable and resource-saving. The question of energy-efficient and sustainable production is of fundamental importance for the future competitiveness of the plastics processing companies. Based on steadily rising energy prices and imminent penalties on emission of pollutants, but also considering ever-increasing global warming and an increasing ecological sense of responsibility, it is now more important than ever to develop sustainable solutions. From resource-saving material use as well as the access of sustainable energy sources while minimizing the emissions (especially CO2) that harm the climate. Political restrictions at the global as well as at the federal level deliberately combine ecological and economic aspects in order to achieve the planned goals. But how can the plastics industry handle the scarce and more expensive resources that are needed more than ever? How can factories and plants be intelligently controlled in relation to energy availability? The obtained measurements / data, for example, provide optimal conditions for detecting and avoiding large fluctuations in the initial “molding-process” at an early stage. In addition, there is the opportunity to link production processes more intelligently with energy consumption. Taking into account all technical restrictions and the fulfillment of customer requirements, plastics businesses can adapt their production to fluctuations in energy prices, thereby reducing their energy costs and making production sustainable. In this way, production can be optimized in terms of throughput time, quality and costs. However, this approach can also be beneficial for the customer.

Conclusion

It is important to find intelligent and creative answers to the major challenges of Industry 4.0. Numerous digital tools and innovative technologies for increasing productivity are available for this purpose. Taking full advantage of this opportunity requires the plastics processors to digitally depict the very complex process and its dependencies. It is important to make the change in production comprehensible for all those involved; tangible individual steps are crucial to keep everybody on board of the change-process. The long-term goal of sustainably reducing the reject rate and thus the production costs can be achieved through the sum of individual measures and their successes. This requires a minimum of automation in process monitoring and control. Influencing factors and parameters, which are currently backed up by empirical knowledge from experienced employees, can be captured and influenced by intelligent assistance systems in the future. Here, large amounts of data is collected, which can be further processed to optimize production and utilization of production facilities.

Lean.IQ always reaches out to an integrated networking of the individual production facilities and assistance systems. By simulating control loops, the current actual state of networked production can be mapped and automatically influenced process variables can be adapted. In this way, production can be optimized in terms of throughput time, quality and costs. This clearly shows that plastics processors can continue to compete internationally if they exploit the full potential of Industry 4.0.


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