Do automation and advanced molding technologies still offer U.S. molders safe harbor against low-cost competition?
At its recent pre-K press conference at its headquarters in Schwertberg, Austria, Engel (U.S. office in York, Pa.) reviewed its business outlook as well as its new technology to be presented at the K 2016 fair in Dusseldorf this October (see Close Up story in August).
In reviewing the machinery business, Engel CEO Dr. Peter Neumann made some interesting, and possibly unsettling, observations about technology trends in China. I say “unsettling,” because they challenge assumptions that automation and advanced technology offer U.S. molders safe harbors against competition from low-cost manufacturers in China and elsewhere in Asia.
For one thing, Neumann said his company sees rising demand for automated molding systems and integrated technologies in China. Why is there such a demand in a region notorious for its low labor costs? Although labor costs are rising in China, Neumann said the main reason is the increasing emphasis on high quality in Chinese manufacturing. Automation is rightfully seen as the key to maintaining stable processes and consistent quality.
Second, Neumann said China is active on one of the forefronts of integrated molding automation, known as “Industry 4.0.” This generally refers to a trend for machines to gain intelligence and self-awareness of their own condition and productivity and the ability to communicate their status to other machines and operators. (See our Sept. ’15 feature on the subject.)
I myself have seen more enthusiasm for Industry 4.0 among European machinery OEMs than here in the U.S. So I was surprised to hear Neumann say that the second most active country in the world for developing Industry 4.0 is, you guessed it, China. Again, the reason is probably the Chinese national focus on boosting its reputation for quality in manufacturing.
Third, Engel executives indicated that one of the new, emerging areas of molding technology—high-strength, lightweight composites—is not the exclusive preserve of European, North American, and Japanese molders—at least not for long.
“Similar to Europe, research institutes and material producers in Asia are pushing ahead with innovative composite technologies,” said Dr. Stefan Engleder, chief technical officer. He referred specifically to China and Korea, and he added that lightweight design is not only a major innovation for automotive manufacturing. The consumer electronics industry is also closely investigating composite materials in order to make their products lighter and thinner. “Thermoplastic fabrics, will, for example, replace magnesium frames in laptops,” Engleder said.
Incidentally, Neumann will be retiring from Engel after the K Show (his 10th at the company), and Engleder will assume the role of CEO.