by Brittany Willes, editor, Plastics

The integration of automation and robotics into manufacturing facilities and shop floors has been underway for some time. While some processes have been slow to automate, there is little doubt that automation is becoming more commonplace thanks to benefits including increased productivity and reduced waste. For the plastics decorating industry, automation has continued making strides in many areas as the technology grows and evolves to better accommodate certain processes.

Pad printing 

Historically, automation for pad printing has been a challenge compared to other processes. However, as pad printing equipment itself continues to evolve, automation is becoming more common. “In our section of decorating, where we’re seeing some of the most development and growth is in making our equipment more friendly to automation,” stated Diversified Printing Techniques Sales Manager Micah Swett. “Having viscosity control, having tape clean integrated into the machines, building the machines to easily integrate into solutions that either we offer or the customer is building – those have been the big pushes we’ve been seeing for automation of pad printing equipment.” Furthermore, the ability to incorporate tools such as collaborative robots has become more mainstream for many decorators where in the past the technology was essentially out of reach. “It’s more of a reality now,” he said.

Of course, to successfully automate a process like pad printing, it is crucial to think beyond just the individual pieces of equipment. “The software side of things is just as important as the equipment side,” said Swett. This means making sure the pads, the plates, the tooling and even the ink handling systems have been properly integrated into an automated setup. “You can build all this great automation, but then have a chunky situation where you’re constantly changing pads out, reducing efficiency,” he explained. To avoid investing in an expensive automated setup that doesn’t function at peak efficiency, the equipment and software need to work in tandem.

One of the biggest benefits of adding automation to a process like pad printing is reduced labor costs and need for skilled operators – especially during a pandemic. The industry already had been struggling for some time when it came to finding skilled employees. While there always will be a need for operators, bringing in more automation will, by default, reduce the amount of human labor needed, freeing operators for other tasks and reducing the training needed.

For instance, an automated feeding conveyor can increase output by reducing operator responsibility. “We have in-feed conveyors where the operator loads the parts and then cameras or sensors make sure the part was properly fed. From there, the operator is just putting the part on a blank surface instead of actually putting them in a jig where they would have to maneuver the part to a specific point,” Swett explained. “It requires less of the operator, instead laying the responsibility to the automation from the conveyor to the rest of the sequencing.”

By building the equipment to minimize the impact of operators on the output, making it so they only have to perform very simple operations instead of complex ones, it reduces the amount of human-generated error. Furthermore, operators are now free to perform other tasks or even train for other jobs. For an industry that already is facing a shortage of skilled workers, this is a good thing.

Of course, automation will never completely replace the need for human labor. As Swett noted: “There always will be space for a human. We’ve seen automation free up some labor, but I’ve seen very few situations where automation has eliminated the labor. Those operators almost always are being freed up to move in some other direction.”

In-mold labeling 

While some processes, like pad printing, have been slower to automate, in-mold labeling (IML) has been making use of the automated technology for some time. “For in-mold labeling to work on a grand scale, it has to be automated. You can’t do it any other way,” stated Michael Sansoucy, director of packaging – sales and applications for ARBURG. “Anything that is not automated today will be automated tomorrow.”

As with pad printing and other areas, the need for automation for IML can, in part, be traced back to the lack of available labor. “It’s a great irony of the market where you see high rates of unemployment in certain areas, but most plastics companies I talk to on a regular basis will tell me they can’t find people,” Sansoucy noted. “You ask them what their number one challenge is, they say people. Because of this, I think it’s inevitable that automation will continue to expand where it’s not already.”

However, while automation for IML now is commonplace, it wasn’t necessarily an easy path to get there. According to Sansoucy, “Ten years ago, if you were getting into IML, you were buying a dedicated robot, a dedicated mold and a dedicated molding machine. If you lost that business, it was very hard to convert those machines to something else. Or if you had multiple SKUs and wanted to change products, it was hard.”

Luckily, the technology has come a long way. “A good thing that has come out of the industry in the last few years is a lot of flexible systems,” he stated. “Automation has become very flexible with quick tooling changeovers. For the molding machines, the increasing use of Industry 4.0 interfaces give the machine the ability to interface with the entire manufacturing cell and not just the robot. This can improve product quality and cell up time.”

For Sansoucy, flexibility is the biggest thing to look for when looking to incorporate an automated IML process. “You want a flexible system so you’re not backed into a corner if the contract goes away or you only have enough volume to run half of the machine,” he said. Along with a flexible system, he also recommends customers look for suppliers that are willing to provide a turnkey solution. “If the system doesn’t work and you bought the components on your own, who’s going to fix it,” he asked. “Is the problem with the machine, the robot, the label? At least for your first system, buy that system from one company and leverage that company’s knowledge and expertise. There are good companies out there. You don’t have to go it alone.”

Laser marking 

“When it comes to the automotive industry, for decoration, it is extremely demanding from the quality perspective. Automation plays a key role because of the demand for a robust process,” explained Faycal Benayad-Cherif, business manager for FOBA Laser. Like IML, laser marking for plastics decorating has embraced automation as a key component for success. “Robotics is becoming more and more involved in automotive and will continue to do so,” he continued. “The demand is there, but so are the challenges.” 

For laser marking, one of biggest challenges comes from nongeometrical surfaces that are common to automotive products. “You need to be able to deal with these surfaces without creating any defects,” Benayad-Cherif explained. “When processing these parts, either the mold or the part itself, you don’t want to see where the process was interrupted and continued at another location. You don’t want to look at a part and see where the process started and where it ended.” 

To address these kinds of challenges and automate efficiently, the entire process from product design to manufacturing has to be addressed. In the past, product design and decoration typically consisted of designers working in a silo, designing the product before passing it on to those who then would have to figure out how to actually assemble it. “In order to automate efficiently, you really have to consider automation very early in the process, from the first concept of the product,” said Benayad-Cherif. “As you are conceiving the product, you have to think at the same time how this product is going to be manufactured. You have to consider how you can automate the process of that product while you’re designing it, not toward the end.”

Whether it already is being embraced or just getting a foot in the door, automation for plastics decorating processes is here to stay. From reducing labor costs to increasing efficiency and productivity, the benefits of automation will ensure it continues to play a key role.