SHENZHEN, China—One of the stronger manufacturing trends propelled by the global pandemic has been the push toward digitalization and remote collaboration for many multinational companies. That's certainly been true for Austrian machinery company Engel Holding GmbH.
It was on display in the company's presence at the Chinaplas 2021 show in Shenzhen, where Engel was exhibiting as part of the Industry 4.0 Factory of the Future joint booth.
Gero Willmeroth, Engel's president for East Asia and Oceania, said constraints on international travel fueled the digitalization trend that could be seen in many aspects of the injection molding industry in the past year.
"COVID-19 has accelerated digitalization in the plastics industry," Willmeroth said. "Our customers are increasingly investing in digital solutions. Smart service and intelligent assistance have become even more prominent in the last 12 months."
The company was displaying technologies like its e-connect.24 for remote monitoring of molding machines and real-time access to information.
But one of the smaller investments that really paid off for Engel was virtual reality goggles, Willmeroth said in an interview at the fair, which took place April 13-16.
With business travel grinding to a halt, he said, the VR goggles let Engel staff avoid potentially risky trips and lengthy quarantines.
"Whenever we needed some support from our headquarters, we can use (VR) because the service technician hooked up with the guys here, and then they can see what they're doing," Willmeroth said. "It saves a lot of time. We can do it immediately, just schedule the meeting to the overlapping time. That helps a lot for those rare occasions where we really needed help."
The connected machines that Engel displayed at Chinaplas had capabilities for customers to register machines online, order spare parts, service the machines and digitally store manuals on the machine itself. On-site 5G internet hot spots help Engel staff to service the machines from afar.
"It's going beyond preventive maintenance to the exchange of parts," Willmeroth said. "You can see trends and then it gives you a prediction when you should plan for the exchange. You can also schedule for when you have downtime of the machine available."
The company also took advantage of the pandemic to beef up online training modules.
"We had to be very quick," he said. "We made training courses for customers online and for our colleagues, for external customers, but also for our internal people, for salespeople and for service people, because a lot of them could not travel to customers."
As customers shut down early in the pandemic, he said, Engel focused on its own training, helping it be better prepared when the economy opened up.
Of course, digitalization carries with it some downfalls for corporate culture, Willmeroth said,
"We have to be a little bit careful not to lose the social aspect," he said. "Because as convenient as it [is], as long as you know the people quite well and you still have occasionally a chance to meet them, it's working. But to get connected to new people is difficult."
In June, Engel will carry that digitalization trend further with a hybrid online and in-person symposium structure over three days, with staggered times online for a worldwide audience and in-person events in some of its Asian locations.