The rapid evolution of the plastics industry will continue throughout 2016. With advances in polymers and additives and the adoption of Manufacturing IoT, the New Year is trending to be a great one.
Below we have outlined five key trends that we think will have significant impacts not only on the plastics industry but the world of manufacturing.
Lightweighting – Not Just for Cars Anymore
Plastic resins and additives will continue to be on the forefront of advances in light-weighting from heavier metals to plastic. The auto industry has embraced this trend for years and it will continue to influence how all products are manufactured. Along with improved product designs, engineers will work with molders and resins suppliers to customize special formulations that meet the specific needs of a project. Look to see plastics replacing many forms of metal in products large and small.
These new lightweight materials have been tested in automobile impact studies, and are now beginning to migrate into other products that require durability. Sports equipment, like helmets
and boots, use these new polymers. The construction industry has long embraced plastics and this trend will continue. New plastic building components will come on the market to replace wood, steel and concrete. Axion, an Ohio-based company, is using recycled plastics to create structural components for buildings, bridges, and railroads. And, one tiny house project is made almost entirely from plastic building products creating the house envelope and interior details. Even the roof is made from plastic shingles with solar cells built in.
Automation and Customization – Beyond the Axis
Automation and robotics in factories have been around for years. Often used in highly industrial applications, manufacturing robots have become more agile and adaptable. The new automated factory will utilize collaborative robots equipped with vision systems that can be easily trained to perform various tasks. It is costly to reconfigure a manufacturing cell and corresponding processes with every production-line design change. These robots give manufacturers more flexibility.
More sophisticated robots will also increase the ability to customize manufactured products, from jeans to medical devices. In the future, PAM or Purchase Activated Manufacturing will be a mainstay in American commerce and will rely almost solely on robotics and automated processes. As an example, BWM gives customers the flexibility to order the car of their dreams with options in exterior and interior colors, engines, and upgrades. Their website claims the South Carolina facility could run a nearly 24/7 operation for six months and not produce the same car twice.
Three R’s - Reclaimable, Recyclable, and Renewable
In the U.S., we have made great strides in first reclaiming plastics by sorting, whether at home or at work, and have increased our recycling efforts as well, finding more uses for the re-ground and recovered materials.
The real challenge is creating renewable materials (also called bio-based plastics) that no longer depend on fossil fuels. Many companies are starting to take a serious look at these alternatives. Thermoset plastics, which are often used in automobile or large part molding, are not recyclable. In response, companies like John Deere are developing new composites using soybeans and flax. The cost, structural and design advantages of these new plastics have helped secure John Deere as a leader in their industry.
Islands of plastic debris floating in our oceans highlights the serious nature of our plastic dilemma. It is clear we need to move away from plastics made from petroleum-based compounds and move to bio-based or biodegradable alternatives that can fully compost back into the soil. Dupont, a leader in bio-based alternatives has created Sorona® from corn. This new polymer is used in carpets and clothing. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have gone further, developing a fully bio-degradable plastic from chitin, an abundant substance found in shrimp shells.
While the debate goes back and forth between reshoring advocates and naysayers, one trend that can’t be denied is near-shoring. Companies throughout the world have realized that getting closer to the source of their products just makes sense.
It is not surprising that IKEA, the popular Swedish furniture manufacturer and retailer has a large facility in Danville, Virginia. The raw materials needed for furniture including timber are close at hand as are the U.S. consumers that purchase IKEA products. In the Middle East, GE has invested in expanding their manufacturing facilities in Saudi Arabia to help serve the Saudi electric utility market. This industrial contract is a lucrative one for GE and they want to make sure their client gets the attention they deserve.
The benefits of near-shoring manufacturing strategies are numerous. Companies can act quickly in response to trends and consumer demand; they can create a more efficient manufacturing process, and reduce logistics costs.
The Connected Factory
Factories in the past had entrenched operational silos with gatekeepers often keeping a tight fist on their sphere of control. That model has all but disappeared from the American manufacturing landscape. Manufacturers today need to be able to respond quickly and adapt to their customer’s needs. They are changing the way they operate to become more efficient and responsive.
Over the past decade, many companies have invested heavily in connecting all facets of their manufacturing process from design and development to logistics. They have become much better at using technology and connected devices to find and resolve production issues quickly. By connecting all of the manufacturing systems, managers can troubleshoot problems reducing downtime and costs.
The greatest challenge for many factories is to find the right technology solutions to connect all of their factory assets. Utilizing the Internet of Things, factories will become more reliant on networked devices, sensors, and digital communications to improve productivity and control costs from remote locations.
Manufacturing Experts Agree
According to a recent article by Martin Neil Baily, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute, “The manufacturing sector performs 69 percent of all the business R&D in the U.S. which is powering a revolution that will drive growth not only in manufacturing but also in the broader economy as well. The manufacturing revolution can be described by three key developments:
- In the Internet of Things, sensors are embedded in machines, transmitting information that allows them to work together and report impending maintenance problems before there is a breakdown.
- Advanced manufacturing includes 3-D printing, new materials and the “digital thread” which connects suppliers to the factory and the factory to customers; it breaks down economies of scale allowing new competitors to enter, and it enhances speed and flexibility.
- Distributed innovation allows crowdsourcing to be used to find radical solutions to technical challenges much more quickly and cheaply than with traditional R&D.”
The Future Is Bright
Advances in resin materials, improved automation, and factory connectivity all point to a bright future for plastics manufacturing. The industry in the United States will also be challenged by foreign competition with cheaper labor and fewer regulations, but we have the technology and the innovative spirit to continue to find competitive solutions that will advance the use of plastics for years to come.