Panel of journalists at ANTEC® give their take on where the plastics industry is going
By Pat Toensmeier
It was a brilliant idea: Invite four of the plastics industry’s leading U.S. journalists to participate in a panel discussion on May 5, the opening day of ANTEC®. The result was a one-hour look at trends, influences, achievements and challenges the industry faces. The responses were insightful and enlightening and closed the first day of ANTEC® on a positive note.
The session was moderated by SPE president Jaime Gómez. The journalists—Rhoda Miel, assistant managing editor of Plastics News; Matt Naitove, executive editor of Plastics Technology; Norbert Sparrow, editor-in-chief of Plastics Today; and Pat Toensmeier, editor-in-chief of Plastics Engineering (and writer of this post) answered questions by Gómez on issues ranging from the COVID pandemic to Industry 4.0 and sustainability. Following are capsule summaries of some answers, edited for space. Each journalist is identified by initials.
Jaime Gómez (JG): “What do you think will be the lasting impacts from this past year?”
NS: One issue is supply chains. There was a huge PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage when the pandemic began because most supplies were made in China and Asia-Pacific. This raised awareness among the public and there was some momentum by companies to consider reshoring. Industry has given it a bit more thought than in the past. They don’t necessarily see the total cost of offshoring—only the cheap labor. More companies are paying attention to risk-analysis [now]. However, China has [industrial] infrastructure that neighboring countries like Vietnam, touted as an alternative to China, don’t. Offshoring is not going to vanish and companies in the end may not leave China all that much.
MN: Manufacturing agility. Manufacturers need to switch jobs rapidly. The drive toward automation is becoming greater, and it’s easier to implement with all the cobots and robots available. Remote monitoring and service of equipment are also getting a push from the pandemic.
JG: What is the future of industry events like trade shows and conferences as a result of the pandemic?
MN: The new normalcy will be more varied. Some companies have implemented virtual trade shows for customers, and this may continue. My company has done research on this and 86 percent of respondents say in-person events are necessary for their professional development.
NS: Nothing can replace a live show. Not just the show itself but the networking. The virtual happy hour just doesn’t cut it.
RM: I expect there will be a lot of in-person events; there’s a real hunger for them. At the same time, you look at the expense of them [for exhibitors] and I wouldn’t be surprised if some booths are scaled back. Arburg installed an entire TV studio, which I don’t think is just for the pandemic. It will be used for other things. More people can access information in a virtual event than will go to a show.
PT: The major shows need to be in-person. But the past year has shown you can be successful with a virtual show. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of open houses done by major distributors might be more cost effective as virtual events. Regional shows [and up] need to be in-person. Exhibitors and attendees want to network. In-person events are costly, but it’s a necessary expense.
JG: What key developments are coming in polymer science and engineering?
PT: Developments are incremental. There’s work to improve commodities like PP and PE, and to enhance high-heat materials like ketones. There is a continuing push toward automation driven by Industry 4.0. I don’t think Industry 4.0 has penetrated that far into plants—larger companies are embracing it, but smaller companies are taking their time. We’ll see more robots, especially cobots. People are doing incredible things with the cobot platforms, and all plants benefit from people doing fewer mundane, repetitive jobs. Robots are accurate and don’t take breaks, vacations or holidays.
MN: Efforts in sustainability and recycling are popular. 3D printing is popular. Another area is machine safety. An interesting development here is tension bolts for heavy molds. For injection molding process control there are sensors that provide true indications of melt temperature and mold temperature. This lets processors know and control flow in all circuits of a mold. Conformal cooling is influencing this.
JG: What developments will we see in automation?
NS: Cobot prices are coming down so much that they are affordable [for more companies]. The installation of cobots grew by 11 percent in 2020, though market share was only 4 percent, so they are still in their infancy.
MN: Data automation is critical. I see dashboards and people monitoring data on smart phones everywhere. Data gives you the insight to regulate your business. Data is money. One processor told me he can save $10,000 per month just by monitoring production data. Another automation area is automatic set up. Once approved, all machine parameters can automatically be set up every time a particular job runs. In some plants, you see auxiliary equipment that sets up automatically along with the mold and machine. There will also be more condition monitoring of machines. No more running a machine till it breaks. You can even monitor screw conditions ultrasonically.
JG: What are companies really doing about sustainability?
RM: Some do a lot of “greenwashing.” It’s frustrating to hear a company state it will use 100 percent PCR (post-consumer recyclate) by 2025 but know it made the same pledge years ago. There is interest in recycling, chemical recycling especially, and there are opportunities but it’s too early to tell how it comes off.
PT: I see developments in recycling technologies that will make a difference. Chemical recycling is old but being upgraded to convert waste plastics into more types of polymers. There are efforts by brand owners to develop packages that use less material and are still effective and recyclable. And there are efforts to recycle PP and PS into higher-value products. However, there’s no real infrastructure for collecting and recycling products, and we need infrastructure.
NS: A pet peeve I have is the claims made for compostable materials. They do degrade but under precise conditions that usually involve long lead times. They can’t be collected in recycle streams, so it’s sort of “greenwashing” [to tout their eco-friendliness]. I wish companies wouldn’t do that because the public is already suspicious about corporations claiming to do good.
MN: Big companies are investing in chemical recycling or buying or setting up their own recycling operations. Another thing is to minimize the use of material—or lightweighting. For example: trash bags are now half the thickness of a dozen years ago; retail T-shirt bags are half the thickness as well; single-serve water bottles have slimmed down 60 to 70 percent. Where a half-liter water bottle used to weigh 28 grams in the mid-1980s, it’s now 5 grams. A 25-gram half-liter PET bottle is down to 10.5 grams, and even caps are smaller by 40 to 50 percent. People don’t understand what the plastics industry is doing to use less plastic.