Buying Time

One of the many age-old debates that crisscross the plastic injection molding industry is that critical decision to either attempt to extend the life of an older machine or replace it. I would dare say that this is a topic far too familiar with plastics manufacturing in the United States, with an installed base of over 35,000 machines across the country with varying degrees of age, almost half of which are over 5 years old.

Cross reference that glowing statistic with the average purported lifespan of many of these injection molding machines, which is usually dependent on the country of origin or age/experience of the manufacturer, and you get a pretty good picture of the potential turnover of machinery across the US.

Now aside from the typical reported life of a machine, as long as it is maintained and kept up to OEM specifications through scheduled maintenance, service and repairs, most will continue to run that original part for potentially a long time.

However, as many in this industry have come to understand and embrace, change in materials and technology is rampant and rapidly growing. For many, the catalyzing factor for change is either an issue of capacity or potentially new business. Do you modify an existing but differently configured machine to increase capacity in another area to support growing capacity or do you acquire a new machine to suit the new need.

For plastic part manufacturers the decision to update or buy a new injection molding machine starts when you have a new mold/mold design, resin type or mold technology that is required for a new product. The most common scenario for this conversation to arise is when manufacturers are about to quote a new part or mold they are considering for their customers.

Often times the need arises when the current system cannot accommodate the accessories or options that are required to mold the new part or product. Options such as core pull circuits, mold gates, auxiliary eject circuits, mold-mounted eject circuits, robot interfaces and even 2nd or third injection units.

Big Decisions – New or Retrofit/Rebuild?

The idea of retrofitting machinery is not a new one. It is as old as the idea of manufacturing and automation, if not older. The concept of taking something old and updating it has been around a very long time and has been visibly apparent across a majority of industries and market segments.

So what goes into a decision to either buy new or retrofit old plastics injection machinery? The rather oversimplified answer is cost. However, there are a few other elements to consider when assessing the viability of the old versus the new:

  • Material makeup of the old machine – old steel vs new steel
  • Age and wear of the machine (number of hours/days/years run)
  • Other issues with the initial design of the injection machine or its sub-systems (controller, clamp, base, motor type)
  • How long will you be running the new part? Is it truly seasonal/temporary or will it be longer term?

The decision is often a monetary one but the calculation of it definitely requires these and other factors.

Turning Back the Clock

So let’s say you’ve taken stock of your plastic injection molding machinery and determined that you like them enough to want to prolong their life span a few more years. Or better yet, you don’t have enough Capex this fiscal year to buy new. Great. Who can help?

Almost all large OEMs have information on their site about retrofitting or “updating” their machines to specifications closer to their more modern equivalents, however, where that work is being done and what will the timeframe be to have it done may be up for debate. So as another consideration for retrofitting, calculate the cost of time to have the retrofitting done and where that will actually take place. Aside from location and general timing of the rebuild, you will also need to consider scope and capabilities for the actual retrofit. While most OEMs will state they can retrofit your machine for the new mold/mold technology, sometimes they are only able to offer bolt-on additions or add-ons while not reinvigorating the original system.

So as not to be dismissive, in some cases that may in fact be all that your specific injection machine requires, but depending on the actual age (i.e., older than 5 years old), type of motor and clamping specifications it will likely necessitate a little more than an aftermarket add-on.

In addition to OEM retrofit services there are other “aftermarket” companies that will also retrofit and rebuild systems for you. While some are likely able to meet your needs and challenges, be careful of the “Frankenstein effect” of what can occur when non-OEM services are employed.

While the laundry list of dependencies and considerations may go on and on; let’s say you’ve considered all of these elements and the cost of doing so aligns with your application needs and have now settled on a strategic partner to help retrofit and rebuild your aging machinery. Now what?

How much time is gained on the rebuilt systems?

By this point in consideration of your strategic partner you should have learned about their capabilities and what is gained from those services. Not every OEM will openly make claims on the time gained from retrofitting your particular machine. Some will, but not all. That’s not to say that all retrofitting services will extend the life of a machine. Some, by design are there to supplement or prolong other retrofitting services and to make sure you get the most of your decision to rebuild and reinvigorate your existing machine.

However, not all services are alike whether it is from an OEM or third-party aftermarket company. Rather than creating a full chart of service comparisons across OEMs I will offer a sampling of some of the service offerings within the broader Milacron Retrofit and Rebuild catalog along with a high-level summary of each.

  • Updated control packages – The faster technology improves the faster some controller technology is becoming obsolete. One of the “biggest bang for the buck” services is to update your controller package on an injection machine. Updated Controller Packages can add up to 10 years life into a machine.
  • Calibration Verification Program – Often times plastic parts manufacturers that do not already have scheduled OEM maintenance plans just want to know how much longer their machinery will last. The Calibration Verification Program is a rather inexpensive way to evaluate the performance standards on the machine and to determine a way to get it back to OEM specifications. The scope of Calibration Verification Procedure is to verify feedback instruments used on injection molding machinery are traceable to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (N.I.S.T.).
  • Maintenance Programs:
    • Leak Reduction Programs – One of the biggest complaints of Plastics manufacturers with an aging machine population is the issue of various fluid leaks. This is especially more so with older hydraulic machinery. Services such as these may extend the life of a machine but will more likely reduce the maintenance cost of extending the machine life.
    • Maintenance Advantage Program – As the resources and time allotted for internal service and maintenance departments become strained and squeezed, the need to support and augment their efforts can easily be done through the addition of outside Field Service technicians. The Maintenance Advantage Program brings technicians to your operations on whatever interval is necessary to support your machinery. While these can be general in nature Structured Preventative Maintenance Programs can be developed for specific machines especially as they age.

Some of the aforementioned offerings/services are clearly intended to support your operations in getting the most from your existing machinery while preparing to either purchase new or to retrofit/rebuild. However, getting more time on some machinery to allow for other machinery to be reinvigorated to support new parts or molds may be just what is needed. In either situation there are likely a number of ways to teach an old dog new tricks.

If you have questions about rolling back the clock on your injection molding machinery, we have answers.