Did Industry 4.0 Ever Make it to Plastics Manufacturing?

Did Industry 4.0 ever really make it to plastic manufacturing? Sort of. Industry 4.0 adoption has been slow because products are; (1) too expensive, because sales costs are high. (2) too complicated and demand too much upfront time, energy, and money to get online. (3) require too much time to use, making manufacturers feel like full-time IT workers.

Because this is a long read, above is the the summary of this post. For the those interested, the full-length is below:

If you’re reading this article, chances are you know a lot about how plastic gets manufactured today. You know that the demand for plastic goods continues to increase significantly every year. You know that manufacturers meet this demand every year using machines that are mechanically very similar to the machines they were using thirty years ago. You also know most manufacturers have started adopting newer technologies, mainly by buying robots, control panels, injection process control units, and inventory management software. You probably feel this is a step in the right direction, and we here at Forward Loop definitely agree.

You have also probably heard a lot about Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, and the connected factory. Somewhere among all of the buzzwords, jargon, promises, and things to buy, you might even feel there’s something to all of the hype and big words. You may even want to start using some of these products, services, and practices in your factory, but you’re not sure how to tell the good from the bad, the needlessly complicated from the useful, and the expensive from the real bang for your buck. In the end, you might find yourself asking, “Did Industry 4.0 ever really make it to plastic manufacturing?

If you’re anything like us at Forward Loop, then your answer is a resounding “sort of.”

There’s no doubt that big companies like Engel, Arburg, and other machinery manufacturers have been hard at work researching, developing, and rolling out sophisticated products aimed at increased efficiency, reduced power consumption, automation, and preventative maintenance. While more R&D is always a good thing for the industry, it’s no big secret that actual industry adoption of these technologies has been a gradual process instead of a full-on revolution.

If these products and services already exist, then why are manufacturers not flocking to buy and use them? Here we give three answers to this question:

(1) New technology is expensive

Smart products cost a lot of money. Software alone usually costs more than $5,000 for a single computer program. Hardware products often cost in excess of $1,500, but unlike software, you usually need to buy a separate hardware unit for every machine or every mold. To get these new products to connect to the Internet, you then usually need to make large investments in industrial wifi and even more hardware to pass data back and forth from your machines and sensors.

These costs quickly add up to eat into your margins, and it can take years for these products to pay themselves off in the long run. Given that the typical cost for a new machine in the US runs about $40,000, this means that Industry 4.0 technology racks up costs that are significant in comparison to the price of the machine. For your average mid-sized manufacturer, this makes the ROI of smart technology very difficult to justify.

Does this mean that smart manufacturing technology is only for the biggest of manufacturers? Are the smaller players doomed? Not necessarily.

It turns out that a good deal of the cost of new products comes from the fact that it is very expensive to sell these new products. Ultimately, all prices have to cover costs and profits. Sales are expensive because smart technology manufacturers use the same channels to sell an expensive machine and a much cheaper preventative maintenance system.

Picture this: a machinery manufacturer makes a new smart technology that costs a few hundred dollars to produce but then they send out sales people to a factory to sell this technology. Suddenly, the price tag of the smart product needs to double in order to cover the cost of the sales team. Now you add complicated in-person training and big customer service teams into the mix and you have a recipe for a very expensive product that will have a hard time living up to the cost of the unit. The biggest manufacturers can justify these costs because small savings in time or the cost of power scale up to big savings for them. This is not always the case for the vast majority of manufacturers out there.

However, if smart technology companies can find a way to get products to manufacturers in a way that doesn’t require the smart technology makers to break the bank while selling, then plastic manufacturers, smart technology producers, and the industry as a whole will win. Here at Forward Loop, we are trying to do exactly that. You buy sensors online, we ship them to you, and the whole process costs a lot less time and money than it did before. Just as we are trying to bring you new and smarter technology, we are also trying to bring it to you in a new and smarter way.

While it’s probably obvious that lower sales costs lead to lower product prices, this whole line of thinking hides a serious gotcha. Sure, you can buy products more cheaply online, but won’t it still cost you a fortune in training and service to get the smart products up and running in your factory? You hit the nail on the head there. In order to make smart technology truly affordable to manufacturers, these new products need to be less expensive not just in price but also in the time, energy, and knowledge that manufacturers need to invest to use them. This brings us to our second reason why Industry 4.0 has not yet swept the industry.

(2) New technology is complicated

Making good plastic parts quickly is complicated, The process is complicated. You have tens, hundreds, thousands of complex mechanical tools operating at the same time to move large pieces of metal very precisely, melt exact quantities of different plastics very precisely, shoot that plastic at high speed precisely into a precisely machined metal cavity, so that precisely tuned robots can pull those parts out of the metal cavity just in time to start the whole process over and run it hundreds of times every hour as long as you can keep it going without problems. It’s this dance of engineering, chemistry, planning, and hard work that keeps the industry going.

Just because the process of making plastic is complicated, it doesn’t mean that the smart products that help you make better parts faster need to be complicated too.Take the example of the phone in your pocket. At all times, that phone is running hundreds of thousands of processes to make sure that you can pick it up, touch the screen a few times, and call anyone in the world over the Internet for less money than it used to cost to make a local call on a payphone. Just as the technology exists that can make sense of what’s happening in your factory, the technology exists to help you make sense of all of that information. It is now up to smart technology manufacturers to bring these two pieces together to make products that are easier to use but just as valuable in terms of saving your factory on time, energy, and materials.

So far, most connected factory products have been extremely complicated. Many of them require extensive training followed by equally complicated operating procedures to keep them up and running and to make sure your factory gets the most out of them. While it is always good to have access to information about your factory, many of these products drown you in that information to the point that you no longer understand the vast majority of it.

At Forward Loop, we are trying to improve this situation by bringing you simple connected sensors that keep you informed about your factory without requiring that you pass a multiple-day course on how to use them. When something happens in your factory and you need to know about it, the sensors inform you about what happened and why it happened. This frees you from having to monitor smart products all of the time, consulting dashboard after dashboard on a regular basis in order to figure it out yourself. This brings us to our final major reason why Industry 4.0 will need more time to reach the entire industry.

(3) New technology needs too much “love”

You know how to make plastic. You want to make plastic. You probably don’t want to interact with a variety of screens, reports, and dashboards during every waking moment to make that happen. Even if you can buy smart technology more cheaply and you know exactly how to use it, you’re in the business of plastics, not data analytics.

Nonetheless, most of the smart products for manufacturers need you to check them and re-check them to get your money’s worth. Suddenly you find yourself keeping an eye on the parts you’re making, the control panels on the machines, the parameters on your process control unit, the dashboards for every smart product you have, the Internet gateway for your IoT network, and so on and so forth until you start to feel less and less like a manufacturer and more and more like IT support.

In order to reach a wider market, smart products and connected devices need to do more than just gather data, shows graphs, and hook up to the Internet. They need to help you make sense of the data they have gathered. They need to keep you informed about your processes and how they change over time without you doing all of the hard work of noticing those changes and determining what to do to respond to them.

At Forward Loop, we are trying to do this with MoldMonitor by making sensors that you can install in minutes without any complicated training, and we keep you informed about what’s happening. If you can log into your email account, then you can use Forward Loop sensors just fine. For more urgent messages, we can contact you directly via SMS to make sure the mechanics of your molds and machines are working right. We do this to free up your time and focus, and we think that this is the right track for the Industry 4.0 products of the future.

To sum it all up, Industry 4.0 has not yet caught on fully because the products, services, and solutions cost too much money, take too much time to understand, and force you to use them all of the time to get value out of them. In order to improve the appeal of these products, large machinery manufacturers and smaller innovative product makers need to focus on reducing costs through simpler sales channels, reducing complexity through easier interfaces, and reducing the amount of time that needs to be spent interacting with these products by making sure that smart products only give you information you can put to use.

Want to know more?
Get in touch at info@forward-loop.com