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Two prevailing conditions:

(1) Those people who track demographics have noted that there are plenty of workers in the auto industry who are going to be retiring out of the industry. And it doesn't take a degree in population statistics to recognize that newspaper classifieds are full of enticing offers for people, especially those who are in the skilled trades, like die setters.

(2) As the OEMs globalize, they are insisting (explicitly or implicitly) that their suppliers globalize, as well. Additionally, the OEMs are standardizing practices around the world. Which means that a given part made in North America must be the same as one made in Europe, which must be just like one made in Asia.

Two consequent problems as this relates to producing injection molded parts:

(1) There aren't enough die setters to go around.

(2) The traditional approach to setting up and operating injection molding machines is one that tends to involve a lot of individual experience-based adjustments. Consequently, there is little in the way of truly standardized practices.

Enter Moldflow Corp. (Lexington, MA). This 20-year-old company has been providing software for those producing plastic parts from its start.

Now it is offering a new product called the Moldflow Plastics Xpert (MPX). It isn't a replacement for die setters. It is a lever for their abilities. MPX is a combination of hardware (an industrial PC that sits along the side of the control of an injection molding machine; it connects to the controller with a serial link or Ethernet; it connects to the machine, without elaborate, special sensors, to obtain input regarding hydraulic pressure, screw displacement, and injection triggers; it connects to the machine in about 1.5 hours) and software that runs on the QNX real-time operating system. The software is partitioned into three parts: Setup Xpert; Moldspace Xpert; Production Xpert.

With regard to Setup Xpert, based on uploaded CAE analysis, manually entered machine profile information, or responses to a setup wizard, it optimizes the cooling time; the shot size's velocity profile; packing pressure; packing time; and pressure profile. This provides the means to achieve consistent setup for a given part.

Moldspace Xpert is about developing an acceptable processing window with regard to parameters for assurance of quality part production. This performs rapid (i.e., minutes instead of hours) design of experiments to attain it, which is particularly important in injection molding because parameters often affect each other in a non-linear manner.

Production Xpert performs two primary functions. These are monitoring and controlling. This system knows what the process limits are and it runs statistical analysis during machine operation. Should any drift be determined, it can (1) automatically have the control make the necessary adjustments or (2) alert the machine operator so human intervention can be performed.

The benefits of this product are fairly straightforward. First of all, there's faster setup time. The Setup Xpert certainly provides not only consistency, but also the means by which setup personnel can get closer to the necessary adjustments with fewer trial-and-error runs. Presumably, it is possible to get right to the necessary settings in short order. And once this information has been obtained, it can be readily transmitted to other machines.

It provides faster cycle times for molding operations. This is a result of the fact that the sequence is being optimized. It is possible to have a machine setup and running at something less than what the machine/mold/material combination allows. MPX is meant to minimize that.

There's less downtime. This goes back, largely, to the issue of reduced setup time. But also, through the monitoring of the machine, it can determine whether something has gone awry and allows quicker correction.

Finally, there's scrap reduction. Doing it right (1) from the start and (2) throughout the run means less scrap.

All of this comes, of course, at a price. The price for the hardware and the software is on the order of $20,000 to $25,000 per machine. So what does this mean vis-a-vis payback? At a Denso Manufacturing facility in Australia, savings of over $14,000 were attained in little more than eight months with MPX. Total payback is anticipated in approximately two years.

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