For the manufacturing industry with its large production systems, digital networking has been common practice for some time. There are discussions about digitally networked monitoring of raw material and product flows in the production area, including industry-wide beyond company boundaries. There are clear links here to the circular economy and climate protection. Machine manufacturers for plastics and rubber processing have also been used to digital control of their products for some time. A new development in recent years has been the opening up of what were previously mostly proprietary "stand-alone" solutions for integration into a higher-level control instance.
"Digitalisation will make products transparent" – Ingemar Bühler, PlasticsEurope Deutschland
Interview with Thorsten Kühmann, Managing Director of Plastics and Rubber Machinery within the VDMA and Ingemar Bühler, Chief Executive Officer of PlasticsEurope Deutschland
Plastic still has a poor reputation. What can the plastics industry do to ensure that the obvious advantages of the material are not overcast by its current negative image?
Thorsten Kühmann: We must succeed in establishing a functioning circular economy, as the main cause for the bad image the public has of plastic is the waste that ends up in the environment and in the oceans. Simply put, we have to make sure that waste does not end up in the environment, but if it can't be avoided, we must ensure that it is recycled. We, as an industry, can accomplish this task if we act as a body.
Ingemar Bühler: The waste problem has not been taken seriously enough by the industrial sector for far too long - and has not been addressed for this reason. Manufacturers or processors have taken up the position that it is not they themselves who transport the waste into the environment, which, by the way, is correct. In fact, many of the measures to tackle the waste problem must be taken by politicians. Regulations and laws are necessary. Nevertheless, companies and organisations must also consider how to get a grip on the problem. We have to do something ourselves and become part of the solution.
What can plastics manufacturers contribute? Is chemical recycling part of the solution?
Bühler: In essence, chemical recycling is about generating synthetic oil from used plastic, that means bringing it back to its original state. This can then be utilised again to manufacture high quality products. With mechanical recycling, on the other hand, it is very a difficult and complex process to create products equal or superior to recyclates. In the future, chemical recycling will complement mechanical recycling most adequately, but will not replace it. The available capacity is not extensive enough and, at least at present, the amount of energy required is too high. But together, the two methods can lead to a situation where there is no more plastic waste because they will all be part of a cycle.
So what can machine manufacturers do?
Kühmann: We have been working on setting up cycles for quite a while. For example, we now have sound procedures for turning regranulates into new, high quality products. To do this, very different technologies have to be interlinked. We now also have the digital possibilities to track plastic products over their entire life cycle, to mark them. This makes them transparent, and you can now see what plastic types a product is made of. That is enormously important to know, because at the end of their life, the products have to be separated again and also recycled separately so that they can be reintroduced to the cycle. This task concerns mechanical engineering; it concerns the manufacturing industry and the processing industry, and this is where we really have a very close exchange, of which we are now seeing the effects.
So digitalisation is the driver of the circular economy?
Kühmann: Digitalisation of value chains has two main effects: firstly, the above-mentioned transparency, which enables traceability, and thereby facilitates the circular economy considerably. Products become transparent, so to speak. The second major advantage of digitalisation is that it makes it much easier to control industrial processes. This generates a major push in the direction of sustainable management. You produce less waste, so you use less material and save valuable resources. Digitalised processes are therefore a very useful addition to established processes within production.
Bühler: Digitalisation is taking place on many levels. It is used in the development of new materials and material properties. It also changes production procedures, such as in mechanical engineering. And it changes the way plastics manufacturers cooperate with their customers. They often no longer manufacture a product and simply market it, but develop a product together with the customer instead, through joint simulation mechanisms. Without question, the digital transformation facilitates the circular economy, but it extends far beyond that.
Circular economy is a long-term project. How can we fast-track convincing consumers of the benefits of plastics?
Kühmann: In addition to organising a credible transformation process, we must seek a dialogue with the public. There are so many issues related to plastics that are quite pressing and sometimes very complex. One step in this direction is the new initiative "We are plastics". In it, the associations of the plastics industry, i.e. those of the plastic manufacturers, plastic processing industry and plastic machinery industry, present facts and contexts, and offer all interested parties – from consumers to NGOs to politicians – the opportunity to enter into dialogue with us.
Bühler: Yes, for instance, we need to enlighten people about how necessary plastic products are for our lives, especially regarding a climate-neutral future. Plastics enable lightweight construction, electromobility, and the use of wind and solar energy. The advantage over other materials is considerable. And the possibilities are far from exhausted.
Machines are supposed to give people a hand. With optimal networking with IoT, Industry 4.0 and AI, machines and systems become perfect production units. At K 2022, you will be offered the latest developments and groundbreaking innovations on all trend topics in the plastics and rubber industry.
See for yourself that virtual communication between man and machine is no pipe dream!
We live in a world in which processes are becoming increasingly complex. This also applies to the plastics industry. One way to support people in production with their demanding tasks is through digital tools – and not only on site at the plant, but also remotely. The increasing amount of data also contributes to predictive maintenance of machines.
"The big digital project of the future is predictive maintenance."
Interview with Markus Gschwandtner, CEO of Brückner Servtec GmbH
Mr. Gschwandtner, your company has to ensure that Brückner film lines run trouble-free at customer sites. What role does digitalisation play in this operation?
Digitalisation is of crucial importance to us as the interface between Brückner and the customer, which is why we continuously drive forward integration and exchange of data and information. To this end, we have set up a digital service platform where the customer can access our services online. Let me give you an example: the delivery scope of a plant includes extensive documentation. Up until now, it has always consisted of many folders. If the customer wanted some information, it could take a while to find the relevant passages. On our service platform, this documentation is now available online at any time. The service technician standing in front of the machine then has easy and quick access to the necessary information via a tablet or smartphone.
Consequently, access to information is becoming easier. What other advantages are there?
The fundamental advantages are transparency and simplicity. Here is another example: we install about 30,000 parts in each machine. Many of these are labelled with a QR code, including parts from suppliers. It identifies each component from the beginning of its life with Brückner until it is used at the customer's site. All customers need to do is scan the part they want to replace; both we and the customer then know exactly which part is concerned and when it will be available. This allows us to react much more quickly and, if necessary, to fix a problem much sooner.
Many companies hesitate when it comes to handing over data. How do you convince them?
We have to ensure that the data is truly secure. At our company, there are no leaks. We are TÜV-certified. But that assurance alone isn’t enough to convince a customer; the decisive factor is that we need to make sure the customer sees the enormous advantages. The benefits of data integration are the greatest where corporate boundaries are crossed. Over 70 percent of our customers are already on our digital platform. Basically, it’s the same principle as a smartphone: you see what’s possible with it, and soon after, you find you can't do without it.
What is the next big digitalisation topic?
The big digital project of the future is predictive maintenance. When one of our production lines comes to a standstill, the customer loses around 10,000 euros on average in revenue, and that figure is per hour. It is therefore important to keep these stoppages as brief as possible, but in any case, to be able to predict them. We are already well on the way to doing that, installing sensors, for instance, to assess the status of critical components. In the future, we will also use artificial intelligence to predict when a part might break or when maintenance should be carried out. The goal is to increase the ability to plan necessary maintenance work ahead, because that will save considerable costs and increase the production uptime.
Will resources be conserved?
Predictive maintenance helps make utilisation of the production line and also all subsequent steps more sustainable. For example, if maintenance is carried out without it actually being necessary at the time, spare parts will also be replaced needlessly early. So, you will need a lot more material over the life cycle of a plant. But resources are also conserved if, for example, we install more energy-efficient motors during upgrades and modifications. The goal must be to use as few resources as possible, be it material, energy, or raw materials. Only through digitalisation can we achieve the transparency necessary for this purpose.
How are digitalisation and the circular economy interrelated?
Without digitalisation, it would be very difficult to enable a circular economy. With it, however, we can for example label products during the production process. Then machines can recognise later in the waste collection cycle what the packaging film, is actually made of. It is then possible to identify that a piece of packaging film is made of polyethylene and does not contain more than five percent different and foreign materials. This means it is fully recyclable. But the production lines have to be prepared. Such mono-material structures require numerous modifications to the plants. Only then can a high-quality plastic packaging film, which is ready for circular economy, be guaranteed.
What’s the next phase in the circular economy?
With regard to packaging films, circular economy can only work if we aim for mono-material structures. But it is also important to have a better collection system for plastics, comparable to that for bottles. It must be made as simple as possible for the consumer. Next, the plastic has to be separated so that you get single-source plastics. The next step is single-source recycling. But then there is the question of what to use the recyclate for. Turning a packaging film back into a packaging film remains a vision for the time being but turning recycled packaging film into good products that can be used in injection moulding, for example, would make sense.
What are the major challenges?
The technical challenges will be overcome. It will be more difficult to implement a viable collection system. And then it is important that the circular economy is established all over the world. A lot is collected in Germany or Austria, but not so much yet elsewhere in Europe and in many other parts of the world. The quantities are still too small for the circular economy to be economically viable. That has to change, too.