K 2016 presents unique abundance of innovative applications and complex exhibits

Tailored materials, efficient use of resources, zero-defect production, generative production methods and digitalisation are only some of the many technological trends featured by this year’s trade fair.

No other trade fair in the world presents polymer materials as well as plastics and rubber processing machines, technology and equipment in such an abundance and at such a superior quality level as the K flagship fair in Düsseldorf/Germany. There is no other exhibition that shows such a wide variety of top quality and complex exhibits. It was on good grounds that Werner Matthias Dornscheidt, CEO of Messe Düsseldorf, called the last trade fair in 2013 “the largest plastics factory in the world”. K 2016, the competitive trade fair for the international plastics industry, will once again provide a comprehensive overview of polymer technologies at the leading edge of global development.

Tailored and application-specific, functional materials

Since the 1990s, no essentially new polymers have made it into industrial-scale production – apart from a few biopolymers. Hence, processes such as the modification, additivation and functionalisation of polymer raw material with the aim of creating tailor-made compounds for specific applications or for producing specific properties, have become the lynchpin of all industrial polymer material production. Currently, the main focus seems to lie on the approval of materials that come into contact with food or drinking water and of materials used in medical applications. Another important objective for tailor-made materials: sufficient chemical resistance to substances such as cosmetics or other chemicals, and stability against continuous operating and peak temperatures, which are common in electronic or lighting systems. In addition to an adjustable thermal conductivity, many applications also require adjustable electric conductivity or electric resistance. The same applies to rubber-based applications: tasked with meeting the exacting requirements of certifications for drinking-water applications or providing reliable flame-retardancy in materials, compounders have been applying major technical expertise to their blend formulation processes. Rubber applications operated in close proximity to combustion engines must withstand increasingly higher continuous operating and peak temperatures as well as aggressive media. Not only electric vehicles require highly efficient tyres with improved traction and minimised rolling resistance.

More efficient use of resources brings new challenges

The call for a responsible and careful use of finite resources and their restrictive consumption is not just a widely expressed popular demand, but also an economic necessity. This involves the efficient use of material, i.e. polymer materials. Selecting a material-specific and production-specific design of the final product is often the first step towards making production processes more efficient.

There have also been major improvements in the energy consumption of plastics processing machines. Nonetheless, manufacturers of large processing machinery, most of all injection moulding machines as well as compression moulding machines, extruders and blow moulding machines, still identify potential for reducing their machines’ consumption rates. They are moving closer to the physical limits and are minimizing the energy required for plasticizing the material. The Euromap 60 standard for measuring the energy consumption of machines offers processors a modicum of transparency. For situations where high energy consumption rates are unavoidable, machine manufacturers have developed components that recover energy from processes such as the deceleration of machine movements and accumulate it for other driving processes. Used in connection with technical equipment and installations, heat recovery systems have become part of the standard initial equipment of new facilities and have also been retrofitted in many existing facilities.

Nowadays, most machinery and equipment manufacturers have come to understand that better material efficiency and availability often have a more positive effect on processors’ overall efficiency than minor energy savings. Although energy reduction seems to dominate the public domain, practical solutions that reduce mould changeover times are currently all the rage: quick-clamping systems, fast changeover systems, adapter solutions and systems that automatically detect any newly installed mould. All of these products can improve a machine’s availability while widening the supplier’s production range. This applies both to plastics and rubber injection as manufacturers of rubber processing machinery have also started to improve their equipment’s product changeover flexibility, increased the level of automation and made processing procedures more transparent. Analogue to the benefits of hot-runner technology for injection moulding of thermoplastics, cold-runner technology frequently results in material savings during elastomer injection moulding processes.

Zero-defect production still top of the agenda

The objective of many plastics processors, zero-defect production aims at eliminating the waste of valuable raw material. Many systems can contribute to this. The elimination of edge trim as well as the automatic reduction of the thickness tolerances for plastic film, sheet and profiles as well as that of rubber seals, for instance, makes extrusion processes more resource-efficient. Strategies involving simulations and the analysis of current data during active process also aim at preventing the production of defective items. For injection moulding processes that allow the detection of defects during the active production, a variety of separating strategies are available. These are based on quality criteria that were measured or automatically determined during the active production process. Processes that only allow the detection of defects on the finished part, increasingly operate with optical systems such as cameras.

K is the unrivalled dominion of lightweight engineering

In mobility, lightweight engineering is widely considered as the key to energy and fuel reduction. “There is virtually no plastic product that is not also a lightweight engineering application,“ Prof. Dr.-Ing. Christian Hopmann recently commented on the minimum weight and performance profile of polymer materials. Still, machine manufacturers as well as producers of plastics and reinforcing agents, institutes and plastics processors make every effort to develop reliable techniques for the large-scale production of lightweight components particularly for mobility applications such as cars and aeroplanes as well as for individual industrial applications.

There are numerous, virtually infinite combinations of special production methods particularly for reaction and injection moulding techniques that strive to find suitable solutions for the large-scale production of lightweight components. Despite the fact that many international shows and conferences deal with the subject of lightweight engineering or fibre composites, no other event provides a more profound overview over the many ways in which reinforcing fibres with a matrix polymer material can quickly produce weight-optimised components with maximum process capability than the K trade fair in Düsseldorf.

Metal-plastics hybrids and every combination of fibres with matrix polymers are on show here. Thermoplastics, thermoset, bio-based polyurethane matrixes are being combined with glass, carbon and other synthetic or natural fibres so as to meet the current requirements and demands of modern applications. Production units for lightweight components are often set up by many partners, as production involves a range of different ingredients, from reinforcing fibres and automated handling of flexible materials right through to machines and equipment for the frequently multi-staged production itself. The matrix materials must comply with flame-retardancy regulations while providing superior mechanical properties and flowability, and fibre and matrix material must provide sufficient bonding properties.

Digitalisation offers new production opportunities

The use of digital equipment alongside production processes, also called “industry 4.0”, allows plastics processors to analyse data from their own production in order to collect information and practical intelligence from their processes. At this year’s K, machine and software manufacturers have gone to impressive lengths to offer attractive products for plastics processors. The range of products on show will most likely involve new concepts for accelerating production start-up procedures and for improving the flexibility of production processes as well as service products for pre-emptive maintenance, spare parts supply and quality management. In the long term, data collected during practical production processes will also be used to adapt production equipment such as machinery, robots, dies and moulds to the actual requirements of day-to-day operation and to optimise their design for practical application specifications.

Thanks to digitalisation, process-related improvements in live operation have a major potential for boosting production efficiency: it is now easier than before to combine moulded part design, construction and material properties with the different options provided by mould engineering and enhance these with the intelligence accumulated from process-controlled and temperature-controlled production procedures. Hence, simulation with intense feedback between production and development has become increasingly important. Generally speaking, many suppliers are striving to cater to the increased demand for more production and process transparency by intensifying the interaction between IT and classic production technology.

Plastics production, lot size 1

Productions with shrinking lot sizes are the result of lean storage concepts and a rising demand for just-in-time deliveries. One particular presentation, which was shown at K 2013, put the additive production of thermoplastic parts firmly on the industrial map and straight into the minds of many plastics processors. Even if these generative production methods are still limited to amorphous thermoplastics and do not yet allow the use of fillings and reinforcements, they still provide food for thought, particularly as modern consumer tastes and fashion trends seem to change with the weather and the individualisation of plastic products has presented the industry with a new challenge. On the one hand, this development increases the chances for the mould-less production of components and a lot size of 1, on the other hand, it also increases the interest in faster changeover concepts for standard production methods such as injection moulding. The latter are increasingly dominated by quick-change systems for moulds and media, changing cavity inserts or complete ejector packages to make frequent product changes more efficient.

Human-machine interfaces with intuitive operation

New opportunities in IT technology have also had a visible impact on control systems for modern plastics processing machines. Keys, buttons, and switches in classic formats have been superseded by soft, structured multi-touch operating panels with or without central press-twist control elements already established in modern vehicles. The new look of the classic human-machine interfaces is intended to provide a more intuitive operation and also applies the familiar operation logic of smartphones, iPads and tablets to industrial control tasks. As many production technicians have to be trained for their tasks, machine manufacturers and plastics processors welcome this new approach and hope to attract new staff members to their company by facilitating their work with easy, intuitive control systems. These new systems, they hope, will help new recruits discover their personal career opportunities in a modern, growing and future-proof industry.