A Look Ahead to 2022
I found, dusted off and sanitized my crystal ball. I peered in. This is what a saw:
Industry 4.0; Time to Take a Look: The move to big data has gotten off to a slow start among North American processors. Some questions still linger: “Data is great, but how am I going to use it to make money? Do I need to hire a data scientist?” That said, I’m expecting more processors to incrementally embrace this technology. A good place to start is predictive maintenance. The pandemic and the ensuing supply-chain issues have made it abundantly clear that processors need to keep the machines they have up and running.
Reshoring Uptick: Speaking on the supply chain, have we learned our lessons about the perils and inherent vulnerabilities of having our supply chain extending to thousands of miles in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable global environment? Are companies going to move away from the “buy on price” model and focus on one that takes into account the total cost of goods? The rate of which I receive news releases about processors expanding and buying new equipment suggests new projects are in the pipeline for North American manufacturers.
More Recycling Options: There is no single solution for companies in the plastics space moving toward more sustainable or green operations. At the end of the day, processors will be employing some combination of source reduction, biomaterials, mechanical recycling and chemical/advanced recycling technologies to achieve their objectives. The rate at which major companies are investing in chemical recycling technology and facilities is staggering and gratifying.
Still, You Got to Collect It: No recycling technology is effective without a means to get your hands on material. In flexible films, we are seeing more “all-PE” multi-layer structures replacing more complex multi-material combinations for stand-up pouches and other applications. The reason? The PE films are recyclable. True, except that the infrastructure in place now to collect these materials is, shall we say, flimsy. Yes, some companies have taken it upon themselves to collect used PE-based films and bags and make them new again. But their needs to be a more robust infrastructure put in place that starts with consumers. Perhaps putting this on my list for 2022 is wishful thinking, but it needs to start at some point, so why not now.
More Automation: What was once a highly labor intensive business has creeped and crawled its way into one with a healthier appreciation for automation. This is happening partly because processors are facing enormous challenges in finding and keeping shop-level people, but also because companies are beginning to realize just how efficient an automated operation can be. I’m not predicting a sudden increase in lights-out molding plants, but I am comfortable predicting that automation will spread to other processes to expedite changeovers in what is quickly becoming a shorter-run production environment.