HEBRON, Ky.—Automating certain rubber product processes once was thought to be unthinkable, but not anymore.
Now it's looked on as a way to minimize labor content, improve productivity, bring down costs and— consequently—to keep more manufacturing in North America.
Being successful in the automation of rubber goods production, however, takes planning and a close inspection of all variables of the manufacturing process, according to speakers at a recent open house at Desma USA Inc. headquarters in Hebron.
"We see a real need to automate to keep things in North America," said Desma USA President Scott Early. "In order to do that, you really have to drill down and reduce the direct labor content."
That goal is achievable when proper planning and collaboration takes place, said the president of the supplier of injection molding machinery and tooling. It also needs a fresh perspective and a willingness to look closely at each area of production without being tied to past practices.
"If the industry continues to approach things like we did for the last 30 years, automation won't come with the success that it should," Early said. "But if a project engineer says 'I'm going to automate,' and he brings in the tooling guy upfront and the automation guy, and we talk to the mold maker about all these details, the cell has a great chance for success."
When looking at available automation on rubber injection molding machines, not everything can be automated, but more things can than many think, according to Bob Matola, a project engineering manager at Desma USA. He presented a long list of tasks within the injection molding process ripe for automation and showed a video of how two robots were used to make rubber shoes for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
"Five years ago I didn't think automation in rubber was even possible," Matola said. "There are too many variables."
John Baines, president and CEO of Hahn Automation USA, said there are a number of factors rubber product makers must consider before deciding to automate a process. First and foremost, processors shouldn't try to re-create a manual process.
"Operators have lots of tricks that aren't transferrable," said Baines, whose company also is located in Hebron and has worked on projects in conjunction with Desma. "Is it manual for a reason?"
He said it's also important to maintain production flexibility if possible and match your capabilities, meaning not to make a process too complicated when there aren't proper personnel to back it up. He noted a highly automated process that is out of service often brings no savings at all.
Other factors to be taken into account include budget and cycle time. "You have to do what is right for your company and your application," Baines said. "Your solution is your solution.'
Tooling also must be designed with automation in mind, said Derek Langtry, Desma USA's mold shop manager. "It's very important to analyze your article and work inside out with tooling," he said. "You don't have the eye of an operator, so you have to pay attention to this detail when designing your system."
Donald Picard, vice president of sales and marketing at Hexpol Compounding, implored attendees not to wait too long to consider the compound that will be used for the application. Things to be considered include the cure system selected; cost consideration; tear resistance; whether it will be bonded to a substrate; whether the mold release will be internal or external; length of the cycle; and maximum temperature limits, among other variables.
"Like everything else in life, it's a balance," Picard said. "You may give up one thing to gain another. But don't wait too late in the process to consider the elastomer."
While most of the program focused on injection molding, automation also can improve the compression molding process, said Thomas Klimpl, global sales manager of Wickert Hydraulic Presses. He cited such advantages as improved quality with reproducible production, and the ability to design the press without regards to the operator.
"It's not sufficient to replace the operator with a robot," he said. "You need to reinvent the whole process. You also should take into consideration the processes before and after molding. You can automate more than just the molding."