Plastics have made their way into nearly every aspect of our lives, from automobile manufacturing, medical devices, toys to packaging. We expect this dynamic trend to grow along with it a greater variety of plastics. This will present additional plastic processing and engineering challenges.
Plastics are taking over the world, replacing metal, wood or glass in many industries. For example they allow lighter vehicle designs, are more weather-resistant than exterior wood and more durable than glass. The potential of plastic applications has not yet been fully developed and this relatively young industry is constantly developing new formulations and applications.
Brabender Technologie is actively involved in all segments of the plastics industry. Our product portfolio features the appropriate equipment for base polymer production processes, compounding finishing processes as well as injection molding or direct extrusion processes. However, our core business is compounding, where many small and mid-sized custom companies compete alongside major corporations. All these companies must manufacture to the specifications set by the innovative product designers who dictate the properties of the plastic required to meet the final product design.
Brabender is often consulted to give advice on the process-related properties of plastic manufacture. “For example, say one of our customers has developed a formulation that exhibits certain characteristics in the end product. Our job is to analyze the flow characteristics of the powdered ingredients and to select the appropriate feeding / weighing unit or to develop a new one”, Bernhard Hüppmeier, Brabender Technologie’s Head of Sales in Germany / Austria / Switzerland, explains. “Almost all new bulk materials must be initially tested to see how easy they are to feed into the production processes”, Klaus Plien, Head of Sales in Europe (except Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and South America, adds.
This trend of developing new plastic products and with it new ingredients continues and will not end any time soon. A good example are nanoparticles that expose processing limitations. “That is an interesting topic, as nanoparticles exhibit very different characteristics during processing as compared to the final product. Feeding them is very difficult as the nanoparticles are very small and fluid. They even penetrate human skin by contact. All this makes their use in production processes very tricky.” Klaus Plien’s conclusion is: “This issue is currently a black box requiring a great deal of research.”
Partnering with research
Partnering with research institutes is also one of Brabender Technologie’s core responsibilities as this is where most new formulations are developed. “Processes are tested to laboratory scale in these institutes“, Klaus Plien explains. “That’s why partnerships are so important for us – if our equipment functions well in these lab conditions and the new formulations are certified, we are then in a good position to confidently scale up to production rates.” Feeding equipment can then be easily selected and modified as required to meet production requirements.
Along with the mechanical components, the control systems are state of the art. They take in large amounts of data from the weighing systems and feeders, process this instantly with our algorithms, and use this information to accurately and dependably control the ingredient flowing out of the feeder. Along with this control technology our interfaces allow immediate real time data transfer from the feeder to the host system. This data can be inputs such as recipes or setpoints as well as outputs such as actual value and alarm conditions.
“Controlling feeders from existing PLC’s with customer programming is a common question”, Klaus Plien explains. “This can in principle be done but you will not be able to have the decades of algorithm development, our full service or guarantee of performance and accuracy. Our controls integrate with ease into all host systems and we strongly recommend our controls be used with all Brabender feeding systems.”
The plastics industry is changing geographically as it changes technically. Market share by the global regions is shifting rapidly, for example while China consumed ten percent of all plastic products in 2005 experts now estimate consumption in 2015 at around 25 percent. This means that China is set to move ahead of Europe and North America in the near future. “Luckily, we had the foresight for these changes and in 1997 established an office in China offering sales, after-sales service and spareparts inventory.” The same applies to North America, where a branch was established in 1982. Decision-makers as well as R&D labs are often based in Europe or America, while production is located in Asia. These regional offices insure the same high quality after-sales service and support as the global headquarters.
Production flexibility is a major issue facing all plastic manufacturers because the wide range of plastic compounds available is leading to ever smaller batch sizes in lean manufacturing processes. Manufacturers demand faster set-up times often requiring several change-overs a day. “Added to that is the fact that many compounders manufacture to just-in-time principles and don’t hold inventory. Therefore, frequent product change occurs”, Bernhard Hüppmeier tells us. Brabender is reacting by providing smaller feeders with faster changeover times, which is of great interest to small-lot contract compounders.
Given the expanding range of applications, plastics are often featuring extreme properties. Raw materials are more frequently toxic, explosive, extremely heavy or very abrasive. These properties usually require changes to feeders, special versions or finishes, for example by using specially hardened screws or dust free enclosures. “We deal with specific material feeding by making the appropriate feeder revisions”, both Heads of Sales emphasize. “That is our strength and at the same time what drives us to innovate.” Given the inventiveness of the plastics developers, that drive is set to continue for some time.