Field Notes: 2014 European Thermoforming Conference Part 2

This is the second in our 2-part report from the 2014 European Thermoforming Conference. Here we discuss the heavy-gauge thermoforming panel and related topics in machinery and materials.

Heavy Gauge Panel Discussion

Representatives from Maac Machinery (USA), Frimo (Italy) and Illig (Germany) were invited to participate in a heavy gauge panel discussion. The first question addressed the impact of heater selection on energy use and efficiency.

As a rule of thumb, 70-90% of energy costs in heavy gauge thermoforming is influenced by heaters. 30% savings is now possible through more efficient heater design. The position of the heater banks and the ability to turn on/off banks during production can also help reduce costs. Certain machines have more heater banks and initial start-up pulls a bigger electrical draw and can set demand charges for the month.

There is more to heating the sheet than the element alone, i.e. radiant energy = square of distance travelled. The proximity of the heating element to the sheet is quite important. Quartz elements allow for changes in temperature during the cycle and these elements can be closer together.

According to the panel, the trends in heating technology seem to be application-specific. The energy retained by ceramic elements provides an advantage over quartz, though this point might be challenged by manufacturers of quartz panels. Halogen heaters were discussed and the panel identified certain advantages for specific applications but they are not used in as many environments as ceramic or quartz panels.  The color of the sheet can influence the efficacy of the halogen heaters. The panel acknowledged that Geiss (not present at the event), a German heavy-gauge machine builder who uses halogen heaters, has been at the forefront of halogen use. Indeed, a thermoformer who was among the biggest users of Geiss equipment spoke up to clarify some of the benefits of halogens:

“[During our use] the only downside to halogen was max demand. They get a huge amount of heat into the sheet very quickly. It’s more of an on-demand system – they can be turned off quickly. Less electrons are used. The wavelength penetrates the sheet (more like a microwave). Color changes can be mitigated. Overall, much less energy used in the total picture.”

Material Developments

When asked about material developments, the panel discussed the automotive industry as a driving force. Many car makers are using TPO foam and generally speaking, there is a very large variety of materials that must be processed on heavy gauge machinery (10-15x more than thin gauge). Machines must be able to process all types.  Polyolefins such as TPO and HMW materials are being used more frequently.

SPE CEO Wim de Vos launched a provocative question at the panel when he asked if OEMs have looked at using thermoformed parts on their machines. “BMW and Boeing are replacing functional [metal] parts with plastics. Have you considered the same?” While Illig has one section of a machine made from thermoformed plastic (a water tank), the heat and pressure requirements of pressure forming mean that plastics or composites are simply not amenable. In addition, the economics of switching from steel would be prohibitive. Paul Alongi of Maac Machinery stated that his company rarely makes 2 identical machines: “We have 8 models and 29 different sizes.” He did, however, also state that electrical enclosures are one section of the machine where plastics might be substituted.

Economics & Growth

While energy was identified as the largest cost in heavy gauge forming, labor was identified as the second largest factor. Tool changeover time is a big contributor to labor cost, especially on very large machines with heavy tools. While some European machines can be changed over in less than 30 minutes with automated systems, the costs for such systems can be 30-40% of the machine price for larger (Maac) machines. According to Alongi, “A different ROI analysis is required for changeover systems, but the technology is evolving.”

Cars in developing markets represent higher volume opportunities for thermoformers. The BMW 3-series and the Audi 4-series are relatively mass-produced but with more models being designed, more tools are required that can be run on the same machine. The economics of heavy-gauge forming are very application-specific and require close financial management. For example, how cash flow is managed, e.g. inventory of stock sheet vs. inventory of formed parts, is instrumental in business decisions. Runs of 150-200 can be quite profitable.

Between Eastern and Western Europe, some differences remain. Supermarkets are more uniform as distribution centers spring up in new hubs. This leads to more similarities in packaging as multi-nationals expand. The number of thermoformers in W. Europe has decreased as production has moved east and labor cost has been the primary reason for this shift. The panel stated that more machines have been sold or moved to E. Europe.

CMT Pivots East

We’re off to Shanghai next week for Chinaplas 2014 where HYTAC XTL will be running in 6 different booths. This is an exciting development for us as we have seen tremendous rates of growth in China and SE Asia. As converters take on more sophisticated projects, their need for a durable plug material that provides excellent material distribution becomes more acute.

We’ll tweet updates from the show and follow up with more Field Notes from Shanghai upon return. Happy Easter to all!