Power Crisis?

Dec. 21, 2004
Milacron's Barr Klaus sees an opportunity.

If Barr Klaus were an economist he would address the national energy crunch in the same way that he approaches it at Milacron Inc.'s Elektron Technologies Business Unit -- by promoting efficiency. As general manager of the Milacron unit, he is, ironically enough, encouraging his injection-molding-machine customers to abandon hydraulic machines for totally electric versions. If the national population of injection molding machines -- numbering about 120,000 were totally electric designs, the annual power savings would be about 15 million megawatt-hours. That could come close to resolving California's power crunch, Klaus estimates. In talking to Milacron's customers, Klaus points to power savings (about 50% to 90% over equivalent hydraulic machines) but he also emphasizes other efficiencies, quality improvements, and productivity gains. The spectrum of benefits starts with cost saving implications for new-plant construction and extends to the end user. For example, in new construction, electrical service to a facility can be cut by about two thirds and both water consumption and associated plumbing can be reduced. He speculates that a DaimlerChrysler AG supplier could use all-electric machines to meet the mandated price reductions. Although the all-electrics command a premium -- one that is declining, Klaus says potential buyers have to factor in inducements from electrical utilities. For example, in Southington, Conn., Vanguard Plastics Corp. found that Connecticut Light and Power Co. has an energy rebate program for customers that install energy-conserving equipment. "The power company made up a significant portion of the cost differential between electric and hydraulic designs," says Chris Budnick, second generation owner of the business. "That, paired with the 70% to 80% savings in electrical bills per month over hydraulic [close to $800 per month with just one machine] clinched it." Klaus explains that electric machines use energy only when motion is called for, while traditional machines consume energy even in an "idle" state. There also is an inherent inefficiency in converting electric energy to hydraulic power for traditional designs. Hydraulic machines often require an auxiliary chiller to cool the machine's lifeblood, the hydraulic oil, resulting in an even higher energy demand. The result is either a hot plant in the summer or a high electric bill for air conditioning. Maintenance is another issue. Klaus notes that hydraulic designs typically use distributed drives, employing a complex network of hoses, filters, tubes, and valves to allow one- or two-pump motors to drive all machine movement. By contrast, an all electric powertrain has just motor and drivetrain. Klaus stresses that fewer parts pose fewer maintenance problems. On the environmental side, eliminating the need for handling, maintaining, and disposing of hydraulic fluid is not the only green benefit. The machines are quieter, typically operating at less than 70 dB. In addition, Klaus says all-electric designs tend to have better shot-to-shot repeatability and consistently hold tolerances of one-half that of equivalent hydraulic machines. He points out that better control of the amount of material in a part can reduce pressures on a molder's operating profit. Overpacking -- "giving away" -- excess material also is a quality issue, because the phenomenon can cause unacceptable distortion in plastic parts having optical properties. Currently, only 30% of Milacron's sales come from the all-electric units, but Klaus sees that growing quickly. In Japan, he notes, where energy costs also are rising, all electric models account for 75% of injection-molding-machine sales. He sees the rising prominence of all-electric machines as a continuation of a design trend that already has enveloped machine tools and robots.

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