How are you managing the costs of production in order to deliver plastic products at a price that is both attractive to your customer and profitable for you, the processor?

In order to deliver products that customers need, every plastics processor faces the imperative of combining the following aspects of their business:

  • Knowledge
  • People
  • Materials
  • Equipment
  • Processes

But obstacles are inevitable. We see common themes in the challenges that processors face, and advances in the industry—namely technology—can help make them easier to overcome.

Processors face ever-evolving challenges, but they can leverage the advantages of fast-evolving digital technology to see these challenges more clearly, address them more thoughtfully and consistently, and ultimately manage them more successfully.

Let’s start by identifying the common challenges.

Top 5 Challenges in Plastics Manufacturing

Plastics processors are most commonly facing five key challenges:

  1. Minimizing unplanned downtime
  2. Managing material cost pressures
  3. Coping with a shortage of skilled workers
  4. Dealing with the complexity of controls
  5. Controlling process variations

While each of these challenges may manifest in unique ways for a given processor, all share common facets that a processor can address in common ways.  Let’s explore each of these challenges in more depth so that we can begin to identify possible solutions.

Unplanned Downtime

Plastics Manufacturer downtime

Equipment failures that cause unplanned machine downtime are a primary concern for plastics processors. In our surveys, processors consistently identify that the most important thing they look for in equipment is reliability, i.e., a high rate of uptime.

While 90 percent uptime is considered to be the goal for most manufacturers, few ever achieve that mark.

The best way to achieve uptime is to invest in well-made equipment from an established supplier that is ready to stand behind the equipment with advice, technical support, parts and service. Yet, even the best built and most reliable equipment requires proper maintenance to maintain reliability.

The way you approach and manage equipment maintenance can make a huge difference in overall maintenance costs. Only 24% of industrial equipment operators describe their maintenance as “predictive”; that is, based on data or analytics. The others rely on time-based or “reactive” strategies.

Well planned, periodic equipment maintenance typically offers a minimum 5 to 1 return—mostly through cost avoidance—compared to “reactive” maintenance, e.g., running equipment to failure, then incurring downtime to make repairs. Here’s why:

  • It is carefully planned: people, parts, materials, maintenance activities.
  • It is done during scheduled outages, so no production is lost.
  • It involves the right people at the right time, without the high costs of OT.
  • All needed parts and materials are sourced at the best cost.
  • All activity is time-budgeted to ensure completion in time for production restart.
  • Major equipment components last far longer without the need for replacement or major repair.

The future of maintenance is being shaped digitally, with “predictive” maintenance coming to the fore.  One stepping stone to the future is the “machine health” assessment, which measures key operating parameters—vibration, heat, air leakage, vacuum—as a means of prioritizing and planning maintenance. Adoption of a predictive analytics model for maintenance by a major oil and gas producer realized a 45% reduction in unplanned downtime.

Other, more readily accessible solutions include tools like SmartServices®, an Industry 4.0 system that helps production managers and operators to observe how equipment and processes are trending, and whether adjustments are needed.  With it, they can identify and respond to many other causes of downtime—equipment and process alarms, out-of-spec temperatures, material outages or interruptions, ingredient-mixing problems, and the like.

Material Cost Pressures

Plastic resin pellets

Resin supply interruptions and pricing changes have been a major headache for the past couple of years. Plastic manufacturers from all over the world have had to painstakingly manage the rising costs of resin for well over a year now as a result of material shortages, logistics issues, price adjustments from the pandemic, and other force majeures. Now feedstock disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine threaten to make matters even worse.

Popular strategies for managing resin supply and price fluctuations include bulk transport, bulk conveying, and bulk storage, along with improved methods for tracking and charting actual material usage.

Depending on the size and material demands of your processing operations, you can adopt and use these strategies in several ways:

Buy resin in bulk and store it in weather-tight silos

Storage silos are available in a wide variety of sizes, and represent one of the most effective ways of lowering material costs.  Their large capacities, combined with bulk-conveying options, enable processors to take advantage of volume pricing while reducing the labor and cost of shipping resin in Gaylords or bags.

Increase the use of regrind and recycled resins

Re-entering regrind into production is one way to keep costs down and optimize material usage while reducing the demand on natural resources. This is an obvious solution, but not always implemented.

Accurately track your resin usage

A software option for our SmartServices® Industry 4.0 monitoring system collects resin usage reports from equipment. With it, you can track material usage with high accuracy and calculate material costs by product or project, which is critical to competitive and profitable customer pricing. Easily set reporting times, material types and other parameters to collect, analyze, and then act using the most accurate data possible.

Shortage of Skilled Workers

Machine operator in plastics manufacturing facility

Labor shortages are endemic in all types of manufacturing, including plastics processing. Now more than ever, it is difficult to recruit, train, and retain good employees. And it is very easy and expensive to lose them.

In the midst of high labor demand and rising wages in many service jobs, it is clear that some people are reassessing their prospects and are not bashful about moving on.

To help maintain output amid difficulties in retaining an adequate workforce, many manufacturers of all types are investing in new equipment.  In fact, recent Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED reports) indicate that non-defense, core capital goods spending reached a 40-year high in January 2022.  And plastics processors have been part of that boom.

In the face of higher turnover and the loss of veteran equipment operators, you may have to ask your remaining personnel to do more. But if you do, that brings the pressures of additional training with minimal resources and the threat that a rushed or uneven job of training new employees could lead to gaps in knowledge that threaten overall production efficiency.

One solution for meeting labor challenges that may not be top-of-mind is to lean on your equipment supplier.  If you’re faced with the challenge of onboarding and training new people, ask your supplier about one-time or ongoing equipment training.

Let them suggest training solutions that take the worries about planning, scheduling, and content off  your plate. There’s nothing like a factory-trained equipment expert to help your newest personnel master critical operating skills.

These same experts can help you answer technical questions and solve maintenance problems, or provide trained technicians to help fill any gaps in staffing.

Complexity of Controls

Video: Why Conair developed a common control platform

When you lose veteran personnel and operators to employee turnover, you lose their accumulated knowledge about the equipment and controls.

There’s no doubt that the digital revolution—Industry 3.0, which introduced computerized controls to the plastics industry—has brought a lot of benefits. But the trouble is, it also brought a proliferation of different control platforms and human-machine interfaces (HMIs).

And, when people must make different pieces of equipment work together—like the different pieces of auxiliary equipment that support plastics processing lines—it doesn’t make too much sense to have controls that all look or operate differently.

Conair made the decision to upgrade equipment around a “common” control interface: controls that share look, feel and interactions across many equipment types.  Common controls simplify and accelerate the training process since people trained on one machine can more easily and quickly translate that experience to operate other equipment that uses an essentially identical control.

Our common control platform—and all of the touchscreen HMIs and auxiliaries that rely on it—support both OPC-UA (the leading Industry 4.0 communications protocol) and legacy control protocols like MODBUS. So, you will be able to:

  • adopt Industry 4.0 on your own timeline, with the knowledge that your older equipment will continue to function properly;
  • see and operate any common machine control screen remotely via virtual network connection (VNC);
  • connect to SmartServices®, which enables powerful reporting, monitoring and remote machine control using the same common interface explained here;
  • integrate high speed, long-distance machine networking with plug-in fiber-optic modules where necessary.

A common auxiliary equipment control platform can simplify equipment training requirements, reduce the risks associated with changing control technology and new investments, and help you take a step forward toward future adoption of Industry 4.0.

Process Variations

SmartServices Screenshot Showing Vacuum Pump
It can be quite difficult to make sure all of your equipment operates together to maximize consistency of productivity and product quality.

At one time, the only way to do this was through experience:  having your best personnel available on-site, ready to fine-tune every piece of equipment for optimum performance. In the event of problems, the same people need to be on-call, ready to react immediately in the event of process variations.

Today, there’s a different approach available, thanks to Industry 4.0.

Industry 4.0 is about simplifying and improving the way we interact with all of the digital data that is now available, and how we can use it to provide actionable information that can maximize uptime and productivity.

Thanks to the cloud-based capabilities of systems like SmartServices®, anyone with an internet connection and the right security credentials can log in and see digital data about individual units or groups of machines, regardless of their location.

If you operate in multiple plants or countries—and even if you are a smaller organization—you no longer need to have expert personnel standing near your equipment in order to monitor and control auxiliaries in all those locations. Instead, they see data in the form of trend lines, charts, and dashboards so they know what is happening in real time.

In addition, analytic capabilities allow you to process large amounts of equipment operating data over time to establish patterns of what good performance and efficiency look like on similar pieces of equipment. Then you can use this information to identify factors that improve performance, or to spot variations that indicate the need for adjustments or maintenance.

You can then set the parameters that yield good results and create “condition-based” alarms that alert you when things begin to trend in the wrong direction. Ideally, these customized alarms can be delegated via e-mail or text message to responsible personnel for immediate resolution.

  • Drying Example:  To maximize efficiency and decrease downtime, create a dryer alert that generates a message to initiate maintenance when there’s a drying air dewpoint variation that’s outside a predetermined threshold. Maintenance staff can then go to the portal, identify the fault and correct it rapidly, before that dewpoint variation can seriously compromise the moisture content of the resin batch being dried.
  • Blending Example:  SmartServices® is monitoring signals from a blow molding machine and the signals indicate that it is experiencing process variations. On-site personnel are puzzled because the blow molder seems to be operating properly. So, they call Conair Customer Care, who logs into the process remotely and reviews equipment performance. The Conair technician identifies that the process utilizes a significant amount of regrind and suggests that even relatively small changes in regrind percentage can cause product variations.  Quickly, the team double-checks ingredient settings in three process blenders and identifies an incorrect regrind threshold setting in one of them.  Once this setting is adjusted, production returns to normal.
  • Conveying Example: Running high concentrations of dusty regrind can lead to clogged air filters on vacuum pumps. To prevent an unscheduled downtime event, use SmartServices® sensor kits to monitor filter pressure drops.  A maintenance manager can receive an alert so that they know when the air filter begins to clog as opposed to when it’s actually clogged. That provides the maintenance team with advanced notice so they have time to schedule a work order to go replace the filter.

Addressing Your Processing Challenges

Processors face ever-evolving challenges, but they can leverage the advantages of fast-evolving digital technology to see these challenges more clearly, address them more thoughtfully and consistently, and ultimately manage them more successfully.

Unplanned machine downtime will always pose a problem, but careful supplier and equipment selection, together with planned maintenance strategies, can increase equipment reliability and control maintenance costs today, even as digital solutions help you build more predictive strategies for the future.

Material costs will always be a factor in production, but you can use bulk purchasing and storage with improved inventory management strategies to insulate your business from costly supply shocks.

Having good, well-trained people on the job will always be a concern, but your equipment suppliers can help by providing focused training, technical support, and digital monitoring tools to ensure experienced help is available to keep things running smoothly.

Industry 4.0 is driving a convergence in data and controls that you can use to simplify training, equipment control, production operations, and process management. As you and your team master the data and information that digital solutions can provide, you can shift from reacting to challenges based solely on instinct and experience, to taking thoughtful action based on more complete analysis and real-time knowledge of each situation.

The transition to using Industry 4.0 tools is a challenge in itself.  However, once you make this transition, all of the major challenges of plastics processing should be that much easier to handle.

Case Study Icon

Case Study: Transitioning to Smarter Plastics Processing

Learn how a leading manufacturer of plastic caps & lids transitioned to smarter plastics processing with SmartServices®.