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Injection molding technology: what does the future hold?

Articles

Marko Korneef, Boy Machines Inc.

More Automation, More Autonomy, More Medical On Tap
Someone asked me recently what I saw as the future of molding machinery. Where did I think the industry was heading? What was the next Big Thing for injection molding?

It's an interesting question, since I don't believe the industry is standing on the cusp of the 'next big thing.' Don't get me wrong – I think we're seeing significant advances in molding technology & capabilities, but they tend to come in smaller bites...a collection of baby steps that have led us many miles down the road.

Likewise, I think the future holds in store much of what we already have today...just more of it. The trends in which I see continued growth – medical, micro, automation – are already well-established.

Automated Work Cells
Topping the list of things that have already arrived (and aren't going away anytime soon): flexible automation and autonomous work cells. We began installing microprocessors into BOY's systems in the early 1980's, and there have been countless industry-changing breakthroughs in automation since. Today, it holds the key to speeding up production while lowering manufacturing costs.

Robotics – combined with increasingly sophisticated task management, data capture & analysis software capabilities – have succeeded in extending production lines beyond a single machine to networks of autonomous or semi-autonomous systems or production lines.

The biggest shift afoot is towards completely autonomous cells, in which everything from the initial mold shot through finished packaging functions as a single, automated unit.

(Last year, our team in Germany built a nifty autonomous work cell: the Fresh-Beer-In-A-Custom-Fresh-Mug automated system. Beer mugs were injection-molded and proceeded through custom-engraving to finishing and inspection before finally entering the 'pour' station and being conveyed to your eagerly-awaiting hands.)

The Two 'M's – Medical & Micro
It's fair to say that since BOY focuses exclusively on small injection molding machines (micro-molding through 110 tons), we tend to engage more medical companies and those interested in micro-injection molding. But even within the tonnage range we focus on, it's obvious that medical device molding applications are experiencing a large upsurge.

Medical devices & diagnostics have been reported to be the fastest growing segment of the plastics industry, and it's a trend certain to continue – and accelerate.

On the molding machine side, more attention is being paid to the customer's need to meet various global regulatory standards. Cleanroom capabilities – and notably their easy adaptability to existing facilities & infrastructure – are of paramount importance.

One of the key drivers of growth for medical molding has been the second 'M' – micro-molding. Parts – and their tolerances – are getting smaller, making them suitable for an ever-widening range of health-related applications. Combined with techniques such as over-molding and insert molding, medical applications will continue to grow and dominate the industry.

Huge – and Growing – Number of Plasticizing Materials
I certainly wouldn't be going out on a limb predicting more diverse plasticizing materials. It's another trend we're already witnessing with the growing popularity of recycled materials. I've noticed an uptick in requests for barrel/screw combinations for recycled material projects, and have run a number of demos at our various demonstration centers around the world.

We had reported a while back that there were tens of thousands of materials out there already, and the options will continue to mount as polymer research & development continues to grow.

While On the Manufacturing Front...
On the manufacturing front, the U.S. reshoring trend (we discussed it earlier this year) continues as the disparities in manufacturing cost continue to evaporate (or, in some cases, invert). I believe – and others have made this point as well – that reshoring to the U.S. will continue, but not in the truest sense of the word. As new companies emerge, production will be established domestically as production costs increase abroad and the bottom-line benefits evaporate, or at least constrict. At the same time, actual reshoring of manufacturing occurring abroad to the U.S. will happen more in ripples than as a well-defined, gigantic wave.

Maybe Not a Trend, But Interesting: Plasticizing Unit Changeovers
Also of note: we've been noticing molding customers' and prospects' interest in rapid, easy changeovers. The ability to rapidly swap out barrels and injection units to accommodate multiple projects or different material types is something we've historically seen in the custom-molding space. Actually, at BOY we'd introduced easy swap-out capabilities several machine-generations ago in response to custom molders who perform frequent changeovers. (All of our 35+ ton machines have swing-out units, making it easy, fast and clean.)

It will be interesting to see if this becomes a more common demand in the future as companies seek to maximize machine uptime – but I'm not sure I'm prepared to label it a future trend just yet.

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