Anyone in the manufacturing industry knows injection moulding is an essential tool for creating plastic items — it’s one of those manufacturing processes that has stood the test of time and has changed very little since its inception.
In spite of the lack of change, this field has always been an important resource for innovation. The newest change, the one that will perhaps shape the future of the industry, is robotic automation. How will robotics change the process of injection moulding?
Benefits of Robotic Automation
Robotic automation has already shown its benefits in a variety of different industries. It offers an increase in overall throughput for two reasons — first, the machines can work at a much faster pace than their human counterparts, and second, these machines can continue to work 24 hours a day and don’t require breaks or vacations.
They can also help reduce cycle times for each batch — a computer controls and carefully regulates heating, casting and cooling. There’s no guessing or estimating anything, and no downtime while waiting for the cooling of batches that are too hot for human hands to handle.
Automated injection molding programs are also much more precise, reducing the amount of scrap left over after a cycle. While this scrap plastic is recyclable in many cases, it is an extra step that slows down production, and eliminating it helps improve production efficiency.
Robotic systems also help improve overall quality — not only is there a reduced risk for human error, many of these processes are performed in completely closed systems, reducing the chance of dust or other airborne contaminants reducing the quality of a batch of product.
Automation can also complete secondary manufacturing operations — trimming edges, drilling holes and other steps that are necessary to make the completed piece usable. Unlike human workers, who can be inconsistent, automation ensures each of these secondary steps goes the same way every time.
Taking most of the steps out of human hands, automation can also help sort, package and ship your products.
Finally, perhaps one of the most important benefits of automation is that it helps reduce overall costs, increasing profits over time. Robotic automation reduces the need for a large human labour force, which can help reduce payroll costs.
Less waste and higher quality products mean less loss, and a constantly running production floor means more products available to sell. It sounds like a win-win situation, but there are some downsides to automation as well.
Negatives of Robotic Automation
First, robotic automation requires a sometimes substantial initial investment to either replace existing equipment or modify it so it is compatible with automation hardware and software. For small companies, this investment can be out of reach without the help of a loan, though it does tend to pay for itself after it has been installed.
Automated injection molding rigs will also require specialized technicians to repair and maintain them. This doesn’t need to be entirely negative, though — if you have a large workforce that is worried about losing their jobs to robots, look into advanced training for your existing employees. It helps you retain at least a portion of your current workforce while creating the technicians you will need to maintain the new equipment.
Finally, and this becomes a big problem in small or single-product factories — a broken-down machine can potentially cripple your whole operation until you get it repaired. In cases like these, it may become essential to retain some human-powered equipment as a redundancy to keep your production running, even if it is at less-than-normal capacity. Any automated program should have at least one redundancy program in place to ensure an automation failure doesn’t slow down or damage your production.
In spite of the potential negatives, robotic automation is the wave of the future for injection molding — it can improve product quality, production speed and overall profit margins, after the initial investment to get all the necessary equipment. It may not be long before robots are completing most of the injection molding in the industry — and this isn’t a bad thing.