Conair is a full-line supplier of auxiliary equipment—including dryers, conveying systems, blenders and feeders, scrap-reclaim systems, heat-transfer (temperature control) systems, as well as upstream and downstream extrusion equipment—that are used by plastics packaging producers worldwide. Conair serves essentially all markets, from food and beverage, to medical and pharmaceutical, household products, and on and on.
The plastics packaging market can roughly be divided between:
- Flexible Packaging: involving extruded film and sheet
- Rigid Packaging: mostly includes bottles of all kinds (produced by injection- or extrusion-blow-molding), as well as injection molded or thermoformed caps and lids
Except for the equipment specifically dedicated to extrusion, almost all Conair auxiliaries are commonly used in plastic packaging.
In this Q&A, I’ll answer questions about trends and developments in this market.
Q: What are the main trends driving the plastics packaging market?
A: The most obvious trend is the increased use of post-consumer recycled materials (PCR). This is being driven largely by the demands of packaging producers’ customers who are committed to reducing the environmental footprint of the products they package and sell. Producers buy PCR and then mix it into virgin resin, when possible, or use it in multi-layer structures where it is sandwiched between layers of virgin material.
Packaging producers are also increasingly making use of in-house scrap, primarily for economic reasons. This is particularly true in blow molding operations where tops and tails cut from finished containers are ground up and re-introduced to the process. In flexible packaging, film edge trim and thermoforming skeletons, for instance, are also being recycled in-house.
The other major trend, of course, is energy conservation, especially in PET processing where the resin must be dried before processing in a very energy-intensive operation. Recycled PET often needs to be recrystallized before processing and this takes a lot of energy too.
Q: Which of these trends is your business prioritizing, and why?
A: Energy conservation, particularly in PET bottle production, has been a priority for Conair for 15 years or more, when we first introduced our EnergySmart® system for PET drying. Today, the latest generation EnergySmart dryers, which feature a desiccant wheel that provides consistently stable drying air and requiring a minimum of energy for regeneration. In Optimizer™ Mode, the dryer’s variable frequency blower drive (VFD) automatically adjusts the dryer’s output to match the requirements of the process based on input from Conair’s patented Drying Monitor (DM II) and dew-point monitors. These features keep the total amount of drying energy to an absolute minimum even if throughput varies.
Increasing the use of regrind and PCR is also an important priority for Conair and the processor’s success in this area depends on two factors: the quality of the regrind and the precision and consistency with which it is mixed with virgin materials. Conair recently completed a total redesign of its size-reduction equipment with the introduction of is Viper™ product line, which yields extremely uniform granulate that is easier to meter accurately. In the film and sheet (flexible packaging) area, we have developed systems that make it easier to automatically reclaim edge trim, thermoforming skeletons and the like. Upstream from the extruder, Conair’s TrueWeigh™ family of products includes the TrueWeigh hopper that measures the mass ﬂow of material into the extrusion process and sends this loss-in-weight information to the TrueWeigh controller. The control, in turn, accurately monitors or adjusts the extruder screw RPM and/or haul-off RPM to maintain a consistent yield control. This enables an operator to run a uniform product within the tightest tolerances at the lowest possible cost. The TrueWeigh Line Manager takes control to the next level managing the operation of up to 12 extruders, controlling not only screw and haul-off rpm, but also multiple blenders to expand functionality in both mono-layer and co-extrusion applications.
Q: What does a customer need to consider when choosing between the different types of models available on the market?
A: A lot of this is covered in the answer to the previous question, but another important element is ease of use. Conair has been putting a lot of work into the design and functionality of control HMIs on all its products to make them as easy to use as possible, while maintaining consistency from product to product. In dryers, we already mentioned the desiccant wheel, which represents the true state of the art in drying. Compared to twin-tower systems, the desiccant wheel provides greater dew point stability and is much more energy efficient. Plus they are easier to maintain. Conair also offers its Uptime Guaranteed program which promises that Conair auxiliary equipment will rarely, if ever, be the cause of unintentional production stoppages. Our customers spend more time making quality products and less time installing and maintaining equipment, and if they don’t, Conair will make it right .
Q: How do your systems enable converters and manufacturers to save costs?
A: We’ve mentioned energy-savings opportunities in previous answers. Another place where Conair can save significantly on costs is in blending. A unique “feed-forward” learning algorithm that is used on the SB-4 blender control governs ingredient dispenses in a different way than typical blenders. Instead of making a single dispense of each ingredient and adjusting for discrepancies in subsequent batches, the SB-4 uses incremental dispenses in each batch, continuously weighing the material and adding a little bit more until the target weight is reached. This approach ensures that all materials are accurate to 0.025% of the batch recipe. In other words, if the total batch is 1000g, it can dose any ingredient to within 0.25 grams of the target.
The other major factor is seen in the order in which ingredients are dispensed. In most blenders, the dispensing order begins with regrind, then natural/virgin and then color or additive. The color/additive was normally done last so that it could be calculated to the proper percentage of the already weighed regrind/natural. However, Conair has rearranged the standard sequence. The regrind remains first in the sequence (since it is always a percentage of the total batch and already includes color and/or additive). Then, the minor ingredients are dispensed second, and weighed as accurately as possible, and then the natural is adjusted accordingly. By keying batch accuracy to the smallest component dispensed, rather than the largest, Conair’s dispensing sequence dramatically increases batch consistency and accuracy.
These incremental improvements in accuracy may not seem significant until you realize that some specialty additives and colorants can cost $50/pound or much more and small saving really do add up over time.
Finally, the Conair SmartServices™ cloud-based Industry 4.0 solution for auxiliary equipment monitoring, management, and analysis, makes it much easier to monitor the performance and operating/maintenance status of all auxiliary equipment in a plastics-processing plant from almost anywhere. These capabilities make it simpler to avoid costly unplanned system downtime.
Q: Do your machines enable light-weighting of product? And if so, how?
A: Light-weighting is more of a product-design and primary processing issue. It is not really influenced by auxiliary equipment.
Q: Has there been a move towards digitalization and Industry 4.0 in the market you serve? If so, how does it benefit the customer?
A: As mentioned in a previous answer, Conair’s Industry 4.0 solution for processors who use auxiliary equipment is called SmartServices™. This proprietary web-based portal, supported by cloud-based data processing capabilities, helps plastics processors manage data generated by dozens or even hundreds of pieces of plant equipment and turn it into actionable information.
The system collects machine data through a network of compact data hubs that transmit it into the secure, cloud-based SmartServices database for processing and presentation in the user’s HMI, where it appears in a dashboard format. The system allows users to set up a series of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that show machine performance over time, identify anomalies and display alarm status continually. If a SmartServices user wants to keep a close eye on dryer dew-point readings, he can customize the dew point KPI to specify a high and low limit. If any dryers vary outside that range, the portal will send him a notification indicating the variation, with a link to the dryer that is involved.
Because it is web-based, any authorized user can access this important information from any smart device anywhere at any time. Should a particular piece of equipment cause an alarm, service personnel can identify the cause and plan repairs without being anywhere near the machine. Set-up staff can track and adjust operating parameters from any location, using controls as if they were standing in front of the machine. The cloud-based nature of the system means it operates separate from a company’s internal network and, thus, poses no IT-security issues.
One customer described the capabilities of SmartServices as “unbelievably awesome.”
Q: How important are energy savings to your customers?
A: Energy savings are important to customers, but energy is a larger component in the cost of operation with some equipment than others. Drying is an especially energy intensive operation and we continue to develop programs that allow us to determine metrics like kW per kg, and customers often use this information in purchasing decisions. However, we believe those decisions should not be based solely on energy considerations. It is important for them to use all the features and capabilities of the equipment.
Q: There has been an ongoing debate about the lack of an industry standard to measure the energy consumption of various types of auxiliary equipment, particularly dryers. What standards/methods do you use to measure the energy consumption of your equipment? How difficult is it to gain accurate measurements?
A: The debate is not so much related to measuring the energy consumption but more on how manufacturers – especially dryer manufacturers – estimate energy consumption. Drying systems typically consume significantly more energy than other auxiliary equipment so this is critical for drying systems. Operating parameters such as incoming material temperatures, material moisture levels, and production rates are all dynamic. Required drying times, drying temperatures, and outgoing moisture levels also vary considerably. Due to this variability, manufacturers’ estimates can vary considerably from processors actual consumption. Actually measuring the energy consumption during production is the best way to know how much energy is being used. Conair offers this service.
It is also important to note that measuring energy consumption should be done over a period of time rather than instantaneous. While Conair’s dryers are designed to have consistent energy consumption, many other dryer designs see large spikes in energy consumption during the regeneration cycle.
Q: How have you adapted your service support in the wake of Covid-19?
A: Conair is well-known for the high level of service we provide our customers. We have always had a toll-free number customers can call for service advice and parts requirements 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Customer Care has a team of 21 to handle calls during normal business hours, with most calls answered immediately and 92.9% resolved during that first call. After hours, a technician will contact the customer within 15 minutes of their call.
During the current pandemic, customers are relying on this timely phone-based service more than ever. As more customers begin to use Conair SmartServices, the task becomes even easier, since Conair technicians can (with customer permission) remotely connect to equipment in the customer’s plant to diagnose problems and make controls adjustments.
Conair also has seven field service technicians, averaging 13.1 years of experience in plastics auxiliary equipment, and they continue to make in-person visits to customers when necessary and when it is safe to do so.
Q: What new technologies are emerging?
A: Technology is always advancing incrementally as evident in the development of Conair SmartServices. But one of the most exciting developments in vacuum conveying is Conair’s patented Wave Conveying™ system, which uses unique pump and valving technology to precisely control the speed at which material flows through conveying lines. Wave Conveying can be retrofit to most existing conveying systems and can provide not only conventional dilute-phase conveying capabilities but also two slow-speed, high-throughput “dense-phase” conveying modes. Slow-speed (300 to 2800 feet/minute) dense-phase conveying eliminates creation of dust, angel hair and other byproducts of high-speed dilute-phase vacuum systems, even while delivering high throughputs over longer distances.