by Brittany Willes, editor, Plastics Decorating
As the fourth quarter kicks off, and 2019 begins drawing to a close, it’s worth taking some time to examine how the plastics industry has fared over the past few years. According to Grand View Research, as of 2017, the global plastics market was valued at around $522 billion USD. Furthermore, “The growth of the construction industry in emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico [was] instrumental in fueling the demand for plastics during 2015 and 2016.”1
Overall, the last few years have seen the industry thrive due in part to increasing populations and increased industrialization in emerging economies.1 In 2018, low production costs as well as high demand resulted in the plastics industry, particularly the rigid plastics segment, experiencing a healthy period of growth and profit. In fact, the industry saw a compound annual growth rate of 4.5%.2 For more on this, see the Trends article on page 40.
The current year, however, has been something of a different story. While some shops have seen renewed growth and profit, others have experienced the opposite. Research shows the manufacturing industry contracting, with many business owners experiencing growing concerns regarding the current (and future) state of the economy, shortage of workers and how government tariffs will continue to affect production costs and profits.3
Growth of automation
Despite concerns of a possible economic downturn, many plastics decorators and suppliers remain optimistic. For example, Screen Tech Designs Vice President Scott Saddler recently stated, “We are very optimistic about the future. In fact, we recently expanded our facility, which has allowed us to take advantage of even more opportunities.”
Providing decorative finishing processes for more than 30 years, Screen Tech Designs offers a multitude of services to various market segments. “Currently, we offer spray painting, pad printing, assembly, EMI shielding, laser etching and screen printing,” said Saddler. “We’re able to serve a number of industries, including automotive, medical, consumer products, plumbing and consumer electronics, to name a few.”
Through serving a number of markets, Screen Tech is able to remain competitive – and profitable – even in the face of economic uncertainty. “During the time that we have been in business, the industry has gone through many changes,” Saddler said. “It is those changes, and our ability to adapt and respond accordingly, that makes our business so exciting. We are constantly exploring new technologies and markets in order to best position ourselves to serve the current and future needs of our customers.”
One of the new technologies Screen Tech has been exploring is that of robotics. According to Saddler, the company recently added a state-of-the-art paint line that includes robotics and plural paint mixing systems.
Screen Tech is not alone in its embrace of robotics as a means of staying competitive in a constantly evolving marketplace. Cosmetic decorating company Amdec Inc. also has turned to automation to better serve its customers.
“One of our biggest challenges is trying to compete with overseas markets,” remarked Amdec President Kathy Carmody. One of the largest screen printers in the Midwest, Amdec has found itself needing to offer faster turnaround times while maintaining high standards of quality and low costs for its customers.
“We’ve increased our automated product runs so that we can continue to remain competitive also while producing the same quality of products that our customers expect,” said Carmody. “It’s been a struggle, but our customers are very important to us, and we pride ourselves on helping business of all sizes fulfil their printing needs, no matter the challenge.”
Challenges in the workforce
While automation may cut down on operational expenses, that is not the only reason many companies are turning to it more and more. “One of the biggest challenges we will face in 2020 is the ability to hire and maintain a qualified workforce to keep up with our expected growth,” remarked Margo Merola, marketing and communications executive for DuraTech Industries.
With facilities in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Beijing, China, the custom graphics manufacturer currently employs more than 400 team members serving OEMs in appliance, medical device and industrial equipment.
Many industries are facing a shortage of qualified workers as the older generation prepares for retirement and younger workers are unaware of the opportunities to be found in manufacturing industries.
To overcome this challenge, DuraTech plans to implement more “nontraditional recruitment and hiring practices to add resources as needed,” Merola explained. “We have put a team in place to research and add to our current list of processes that have been automated. The goal being to add automation when human resources are not available and to enhance the efficiency of our current workforce.”
Despite the challenge of maintaining its workforce, DuraTech expects growth into the new year. According to Merola, “The biggest opportunity for new business in 2020 is the acceptance of in-mold electronics (IME) in the marketplace (for more on IME, see page 32). The time for demonstrators is over. DuraTech has several projects in the beginning stages of development and is responding to numerous industry IME inquiries.”
The future for UV
Automation and IME are not the only technologies predicted to thrive in 2020. UV LED technology also has been gaining in popularity among decorators and suppliers. “There has been a considerable increase in the number of suppliers offering UV LED curing systems, UV LED formulated inks, and decorating machines equipped with UV LED technology,’’ explained Jennifer Heathcote, technical adviser and principal of Eminence UV, LLC. “As a result, end users are increasingly being exposed to UV LED’s capabilities and are drawn to its many benefits.” Such benefits include reduced heat transfer, instant on/off output, elimination of ozone and mercury, no air-extraction, reduced maintenance, zero bulb and reflector changes and energy savings during operation.
“UV LED technology is ideally suited for curing pigmented inks,” Heathcote continued. “This is because UV LEDs emit longer UV-A wavelengths at much greater intensities compared to conventional mercury lamps. While it depends on the specific application, the coating industry is probably only three to five years away from having both functional and economically viable coatings for the plastics decorating industry that can be cured with either UV-A, UV-C or a combination of both.”
Increased industrial applications
Digital inkjet has been around for some time; however, that doesn’t mean that the technology has no further room to grow and evolve. “Inkjet is a complex, unique process that has the capability to do things that simply can’t be done any other way,” remarked Al Keene, president of the Information Management Institute (IMI). One of the biggest advantages of inkjet is the opportunity for enhanced personalization of products.
“We’re seeing remarkable growth in industrial applications as people find they can do things they couldn’t do before,” said Keene. “They’re finding they can add extra value to their products that they couldn’t previously, and that is really starting to drive applications in areas like promotional products. That is an area where I see the fastest growth occurring. The ability to create personalized products for specific events and companies – people respond to that. When they can see that effort has been made just for their event or market sector they respond well and will pay a little more for those products.”
As the applications for personalized and promotional products continue to expand, digital inkjet will have to evolve along with it – something that Keene doesn’t see as a problem. “There are always challenges,” he said. “Inkjet is a complicated technology, but those challenges are not insurmountable. They simply have to be evaluated for each application.”
2020 and beyond
Plastics decorators and suppliers are looking toward 2020 with optimism. Whether through investments in automation or new processes, such as IME or UV LED and adding digital inkjet capabilities, they are prepared to overcome any challenges and continue to thrive.
- Containers & Packaging Global Industry Guide 2014-2023