CLEVELAND—Elastomer Valley's newest member, Lab Integration Inc., is helping rubber part producers embrace the future with Industry 4.0.
Lab Integration, a developer of rubber industry testing machines and software to test mechanical properties of a product, joined the Elastomer Valley group last year to bring in more knowledge and expertise, as well as to build its network, President Michel Therrien said during the International Elastomer Conference, held in Cleveland from Oct. 9-12.
Lab Integration started in Oakville, Ontario, in 2002, delivering universal testing machine upgrades with calibration and repair for the rubber industry. The company started software development in 2004, and by 2006 was designing and manufacturing its own universal testing machines.
After growing at the Oakville location for 12 years, Lab Integration moved to Sherbrooke, Quebec. Therrien is trying to continue that growth in the new office, including a goal to expand into more exports into the U.S.
"We're selling testing equipment. This is not a commodity. This is not something people buy every day," Therrien said. "It's really about having our name out there so people know that there is an alternative to buying the typical from the big guys."
Lab Integration, which has eight current employees, also helps producers implement Industry 4.0 standards, which can bring out new efficiencies in processes, he said.
"Everybody talks about it, but not a lot of people are willing to implement it," he said. "There are a lot of benefits, and it's not that expensive. It just needs a bit of willingness to go for it."
One Industry 4.0 success that Lab Integration was involved in came from another Elastomer Valley member, Waterville TG Inc., a producer of weatherstrips for global automotive companies. For product testing, 18 of Waterville TG's machines are centralized to a single server, where the results can be collected in one place. A product manager could look at that information and analyze the results. Currently, five of the Waterville TG plants are connected on the system, he said.
"There are great benefits on their side with cost, efficiency, all the knowledge that's acquired with such a big implementation," Therrein said. "It was a beneficial cooperation that we're now trying to expand to other companies."
Once the system was set up, Lab Integration took care of the details, establishing connectivity among the machines and the database, he said.
"It's great for them because they've been able to improve, and say, 'This is how things go.' It was a great collaboration. It didn't even take two years to implement," he said.
Lab Integration now is looking for more advanced customers in the rubber industry to connect with to develop more Industry 4.0 networks, Therrein said.
"It's really sharing information, a database that talks to a database," he said. "It's just committing to it. It's not as costly or hard as people think, and it's certainly well worth it."
Originally, Lab Integration manufactured universal testing machines with multiple purposes and applications within the automotive industry. But the universal approach made things too complicated for customers who just wanted a testing machine that could handle one test reliably, Therrein said.
Instead of a universal testing machine, for example, a producer just wanted a pushout tester that would break the weld on a nut without being encumbered with multiple other features. So Lab Integration built machines and software that worked together to handle directly specific tests, then shares that information with a central database.
Gathering that information in a useable database is a key point to get the customer the most out of the organized data, he said.
"A pushout that can share information is immediately a very interesting product, especially if it's on the shop floor and you can't have a computer next to it," he said.
With a machine designed to do the pushout and share the information in an approachable form, any technician can become an expert quickly, he said.
"I want the users to look intelligent in front of our machines, and to know what they're doing," he said. "If it's too complicated, I scrap it, we missed the goal. It's got to be easy."
One way that's done is through database views that can sort for particular information, so that when a user connects, the most important information is immediately visible rather than the entire database at once, he said.
"That's a great and inexpensive way to connect data," Therrein said. "You can create a view, and have a central system that only looks at that view, not the specific database, so it's very efficient."
As Lab Integration develops its offerings, it continues to grow, aiming for 10 employees by the end of this year and 15 by the end of 2018. A larger expansion, across the Canada-U.S. border is also in the works. Though the company has a few large contracts in the U.S., travel back and forth across the border is currently too difficult for workers to make regular trips. Therrein is in the process of looking for the right area in the U.S. to expand, with a particular focus on Ohio, Michigan and New York in 2018, he said.