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Technical injection moulding sector at a crossroads

The report identified a number of developments and trends, some presenting opportunities, others posing threats.

A recent survey of the technical injection moulding sector in the Netherlands draws a picture of a branch on the cusp of change.

A recent report from Dutch bank ABN AMRO on the technical injection moulding sector in the Netherlands explored the challenges, opportunities and trends in this industry, specifically with a view to its future commercial viability. According to this report, change is essential if the sector, which exports some 60% of its output, is to remain competitive and successful.

The Dutch technical injection moulding industry, like that of most countries in Europe, is mainly made up of small and medium-sized enterprises – an estimated 250, out of a total of 1200 companies active in the Dutch plastics industry - and producing a range of products for industries varying from consumer appliance parts and electronics to automotive components and medical devices. The majority of technical moulders are contract plastic manufacturers offering custom injection moulding services that span from a single prototype injection moulding to large series production. They have the technical knowhow and expertise to work with performance engineering plastics like PA, HMPE, PTFE, PEEK and POM.

Trends

The report identified a number of developments and trends, some presenting opportunities, others posing threats. These are not unique to the Netherlands; the situation is very similar to that in its neighbouring and other countries as well, but the focus of the present report is on the Netherlands.

The environment and sustainability, for example, are aspects that are becoming increasingly important to consider. Ever tighter regulations and legislation are being implemented regarding the use and disposal of plastic materials in an effort to combat litter – marine and otherwise – as well as to curb CO2 emissions and to fight resource depletion. Made from oil, the awareness that plastics are far too valuable to go to waste has grown, leading to more stringent rules on their re-use and recycling.

The response has been innovation: better separation and recycling technologies have been and continue to be developed to improve the quality of recyclates, research has led to the development of better materials based on renewable feedstocks of various kinds, and the push towards a circular economy, touted as the solution to the mounting problem of plastic waste and the environment by governments, industry and business, is providing the momentum needed, among other things, to establish better collection programmes and extended producer responsibility schemes.

In practical terms, however, recycling still faces a number of challenges that need to be addressed, the most important of which is the fact that plastic products tend to be made up of different types of materials – think multi-layer packaging, for example – that are impossible to separate. Promising circular solutions include Design for Disassembly, in which the end of life of the product is taken into account in the design phase; modular design, enabling parts to be upgraded as needed, thus extending product life; and product-as-a-service, where consumers pay to use a product, not to own it.

While automation has penetrated the plastics industry the degree of connectivity needed for a Smart Industry environment is still largely absent.

The push for circularity notwithstanding, technical injection moulders, have been slow to adopt the use of recyclates, citing unreliable supply and recyclate quality as the main reasons for not doing so. Demand for products made from recycled materials is likely to come from consumers. Companies like IKEA, for example, have listened to their customers - and IKEA now makes extensive use of recycled materials in a range of different products.

According to the ABN AMRO report, however, most manufacturers have assumed a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, which may end up putting them at a disadvantage in the future if they have to scramble to adapt.

The Smart Industry – Industry 4.0 – is another development that is making itself felt within this sector. While automation has penetrated the plastics industry – in fact, robots, automated resin and parts handling systems are commonplace – the degree of connectivity needed for a Smart Industry environment is still largely absent. This is largely due to the investments required in software, simulation and sensor technology; investments that require a certain scale in production, which in turn has set off a wave of consolidation in the sector. This development is also seen internationally as well, among packaging manufacturers.

It is worth noting that injection moulding is a mature production technology, in which innovation mainly consists of performance improvements, such as faster cycles, easier mould changes, more flexibility, lower energy and material consumption levels; in other words, incremental innovations, which are being driven by the large, international injection moulding machine manufacturers and mould makers. Innovative new materials and compounds are developed by the major raw material suppliers and compounders, who operate at a scale that allows for substantial investments in R&D.

Collaboration with start-ups also offers traditional technical moulders the opportunity to climb on the innovation bandwagon. According to the report, traditional injection moulders tend to be rather conservative in their approach, whereas start-up companies tend to be more forward looking.

The report found that start-ups in the plastics industry tend to be focussed on interesting new developments in recycling; new processes, such as 3D printing; and new materials (composites, materials with specific properties such as Parx Plastics antimicrobial resins). Collaboration with these new initiatives offer traditional moulders the opportunity to gain experience at an early stage with developments leading to improved material properties, enhanced processability and higher product quality, enabling moulders to stand out from the crowd and thus attract new customers. Start-ups, too, can benefit from the collaboration by taking advantage of the moulders’ technical expertise, market knowledge and sales force.

Photo by Arburg Production of a cable grommet with the help of a six-axis robot.

Professionalisation

A key takeaway from the report is that, as a whole, the sector will need to become more focussed in order to survive in the international market. As the report writes: “Entrepreneurs ‘string’ numerous activities together as the opportunity arises and abandon these just as easily if they prove to be insufficiently profitable. Opportunism comes with entrepreneurship. But it prevents entrepreneurs from being able to differentiate themselves in the market… we expect that in the future entrepreneurs will demonstrate a far less opportunistic approach. They will have to choose. On the one hand, because of increasing investments in smart, but expensive machinery and automation, on the other because of the shortage of technically skilled personnel.“

In a few of the markets in which Dutch technical moulders are active, for example consumer goods, toys, furniture and construction products, where functionality and price are the main aspects that count, competition from abroad is massive. Activities in these areas are expected to decline, as the moulders in western Europe cannot compete on price, except if they choose to specialise, which some, accepting that they will remain small and flexible, may well do.

In other segments, customers are becoming more and more demanding, with technical moulders having to meet stringent standards and conditions regarding tracking and tracing, process control, quality control and just-in-time delivery, all of which requires investments in everything from cleanrooms to ERP and MES systems. In addition, as product life cycles shrink and new products are launched with an increasingly shorter time to market, these moulders will be required to invest more in moulds, sophisticated machinery and extensive automation and robotisation in order to keep up.

According to the analysts at ABN AMRO, the sector needs to ‘professionalise’ – without losing the positive aspects of entrepreneurship. ‘Technical moulders will need to be more selective in the opportunities they chase,’ they write.

Professionalisation will involve, for example, a more commercial approach to the market by hiring or expanding the commercial staff and investing in their technical capabilities. Also, the websites of many technical moulding companies are outdated and could be improved. Business development should be a fixed item on the company’s agenda, in order to explore and realise new commercial opportunities.

Little scope for supplier involvement

The report also distinguishes four business proposition categories available to technical injection moulders. The first, ‘build-to-print’, in which the moulder contributes nothing to the design or development of the product but simply provides the necessary production capacity, affords little scope to bind customers by offering adding value. Price/quality ratio and reliability are the deciding factors here. Once a moulder has developed the expertise needed for an application, however, the picture can change. This scenario, dubbed build-to-print+, is a growing trend in the high-tech industry: the complexity and mutual dependency is leading to single sourcing and partnership. However, in the plastics branch, far more than in other industrial sectors, big customers tend to deal with several technical moulders, thus keeping prices down, reducing dependency and spreading risk. These customers generally own the moulds, which allows them to ‘shop around’ for lower prices and better service, and to impose uncompromising margin caps.

And it is due to these margin caps that the two other propositions, known as ‘build-to-spec’, where the moulder designs the product based on the customer’s specifications; and ‘build-to-roadmap’ in which the moulder is involved even earlier, in developing the functional specifications of the product, are infrequent in the technical injection moulding sector. It has proven very difficult for the sector to leverage its technical knowhow and expertise to increase business profitability, as customers are notoriously reluctant to pay for engineering hours. However, write the authors of the report, as the scale of the technical moulding operations grows, this may be expected to change in the medium term.

Conclusions

In the introduction to this report, a question was asked about the future of this specialised group of Dutch small and medium sized enterprises. What was needed for their successful survival?

The authors conclude that first and foremost, in the Netherlands, the sector needs to expand the scale of its operations. Compared to, for example, Belgium or Germany, the technical moulding companies in the Netherlands tend to be smaller in size. Targeted growth is needed to finance the investments required to meet the increasingly more stringent of customers. More scale will strengthen the negotiating position towards both customers and raw material suppliers. Moulders with diverse markets and customers are better able to spread risk.

Second: start-ups are active in areas that will become the growth markets of the future. Moulders need to be part of that future and should therefore seek collaboration with knowledge centres, incubators and start-up firms.

Focus on the future – as labour shortages increase, customers will look for more supplier involvement. Technical moulders with specialist knowledge will be in demand.

Ongoing automation will impact on the number of low-level jobs, while the number of highly-skilled employees is likely to increase. The sector should anticipate these future higher wage costs, write the analysts.

It is a tall order, and one that requires a change of mindset throughout the branch, from management level down. Yet, if done right, the technical injection moulding sector presents a bright economic growth prospective.

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