Technological watch

Machine manufacturers en route to the Circular Economy

The Circular Economy tour organised by the VDMA association at the Fakuma trade show on 18 Oct highlighted the crucial role that mechanical engineering companies, including the plastics and rubber machinery manufacturers, can play in realising Europe’s circular economy ambitions.

The tour was formatted as a series of interviews between Thorsten Kühmann, managing director of VDMA plastics and rubber machinery, and a number of machinery companies exhibiting at Fakuma this year. The idea behind it, said Kühmann, was to offer insight into the contribution these company can and want to make towards fulfilling these ambitions. He interviewed Germany’s ‘big 4’ in injection moulding machines – KraussMaffei, Arburg, Sumitomo (SHI) Demag and Engel – and peripheral equipment manufacturer Motan, at their stands, as well as talking with Paolo Glerean, PRE Plastics Recyclers Europe.
Unsurprisingly, a number of common themes emerged, especially regarding the need for cooperation throughout the industry, the use of recyclates, design for recycling and Industry 4.0.

As Frank Stieler, CEO of KraussMaffei said: “No one company can work alone. We need our technology , but we need our partners across the industry to develop the right technology, as well, in order to produce the quality of recyclate needed to produce end products. Both he and Christoph Schumacher, of Arburg, emphasised that as machine manufacturers, they were enablers: by building machines capable of compounding regranulate which can then be injection moulded into products, customers have the possibility to use regranulate.

“We must never forget the benefits plastics have brought us,” said Stieler. “Eliminating plastic is not the answer, we must strive to find a circular solution.”

As CEO of a company with an Asian and a European perspective, Gerd Liebig, of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag took an even broader view. Referring to the more global problem of marine plastic waste, he emphasised that to solve the current problems around plastic pollution, international interests had to take precedence over national ones. “Otherwise we will not be able to make progress.”

An important point that came up again and again was the need for certified recycled materials. Right now, said Schumacher, there is an ‘awareness’ trend, not an ‘implementation’ trend.  He estimated that a mere 5% of Arburg’s customers used recyclates in their processing operations, because of the complex interplay of ecological, economic, political and social reasons. Also, as he pointed out: “We should stop saying raw materials and recyclates. Recyclates are raw materials. We need to show they have value. But this needs to be standardised, as OEMs need to know the quality of the material is consistent. Certified materials are essential.”

His view was endorsed both by Paolo Glerean, of  PRE Plastics Recyclers Europe, who called the lack of standardisation a big hurdle,  and by Peter Breuer, of Motan. “There are many differences between  virgin and recycled material,” Breuer said. “Reprocessing affects the properties of the material, which in turn impacts every aspect of handling and processing it.”

Weight issues, drying issues, logistics – recycled material must be constantly tested. It’s an area, he said, that Industry 4.0 sensor technology is making easier to address, as inconsistencies in material quality are more easily ‘balanced out’.  Sandra Füllsack, managing director of the Motan Group added that the circular economy was an ‘innovation driver’. As more customers want to start using it – whether for economic reasons, or because they are being compelled by legislative changes or simply because of the intrinsic realisation of the need to address the plastic waste problem – it is essential to collaborate on finding answers to these problems. “It is definitely an opportunity, and we propose to grasp it with both hands,” she said.  

Glerean also highlighted the importance of design for recycling. He mentioned that the European Commission was planning to draw up a regulation relating to this in the near future. “For 60 years there was not a single designer who was interested in this – design for recycling was way down on the list,” he said.

“But in just the past few months, interest in this topic has soared, and it is currently one of the top three among this group.” The problem is the  lack of knowledge in this area. PRE has developed a tool which is available online to help designers assess whether their design is recycling friendly, or not. “We also educate them about the basic choices in designing for recycling,” he said.

The final stop on the tour was at the booth of Austrian machine manufacturer Engel, where CSO Christoph Steger talked about the role his company sought to play in the transition to a circular economy. Noting that plastics was an “incredibly important” material, which cannot be replaced without forfeiting comfort or standard of living, he argued that the “bad side” should be minimised and the good aspects maximised.

Engel, he said, was taking measures to achieve this with the development of a suite of Industry 4.0 modules, “systems that enable the potential quality issues with recycled materials to be compensated so that, at the end of the day, consistent quality levels are achieved.” With machines that recognise and adjust the parameters to the material being processed, processors will be enabled to use this material for ever more advanced applications.”

He added: “Processors do not always have the right knowledge to work with regranulate. OEMs, however, are becoming increasingly interested, as they too, are confronted with the circular economy ambitions of the European Union. With them, it always comes back to how the quality of the material can be guaranteed.”

A comment that was wholeheartedly endorsed by Thorsten Kühmann in his concluding remarks. “We need standards and we need certifications, to guarantee material quality. But product design is important, as well as across the industry cooperation, which is something VDMA is strongly promoting. And next year at K, we will be showing the state of the art in the circular economy – more transparency – and some good examples of how this actually can work.”

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2019-09-18