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NPE 2024: First Day’s Focus on Automation, Education, and Plastics Circularity

Returning after a six-year hiatus caused by COVID, NPE: The Plastics Show highlights the changes that have taken place in the intervening years.

Michael Cicco, President & CEO at FANUC America Corp., presented the first-ever keynote address for NPE: The Plastics Show.
Michael Cicco, President & CEO at FANUC America Corp., presented the first-ever keynote address for NPE: The Plastics Show.

Automation, AI, and education are essential for the future of manufacturing. That’s according to Michael Cicco, President & CEO at FANUC America Corp., who presented the first-ever keynote address for NPE: The Plastics Show. In particular, Cicco made an impassioned plea to attendees to collaborate with local communities to educate young people on the opportunities in manufacturing.

The challenge today is twofold, he noted: “Number one, we recognize there are not enough people out there today [to fill the manufacturing jobs available]. I spent the last 20 minutes or so talking about how automation can help bridge the gap to some of those things so you can stay as productive as possible in a plant, but maybe take away some of the dirty, dangerous jobs with robots. But another big problem we have is we don’t have enough people who know about robots, or who know about maintenance, or can actually do the things that we need to do in manufacturing. So we need to create those people.

“We either need to take people who are already in manufacturing now and retrain them in terms of what advanced manufacturing looks like, or we need to empower young people to actually get into manufacturing at a young age. And so what we’ve done [at FANUC] is we started to work with education providers around the country. And we created a program that has, in our case, a robot, but for you, it can be whatever kind of equipment that you make, and we created an entire curriculum around that robot. And now we’re up to where it’s already in 1,600 different schools across North and South America, we have about 1,500 certified instructors, and we feel like we are touching about 7,000 students every year. …

“And what I tell people every time I talk to them about what they can do for the industry, I would say go find a school that’s close by where your plant is and walk in the front door and say, ‘Do you want to partner with me from an education perspective?’ Help them with equipment. And then it’s a win-win. Because you're partnering with them, they’re partnering with you, you’re getting the top-notch talent that’s coming out of that school, and they’re getting the industry knowledge they need to actually train the kids on what the real world is like.”

Churchill Container Proves Viability of Purification for Recycled Polypropylene

Erik Johnson, director of Design & Product Development for Churchill Container.Erik Johnson, director of Design & Product Development for Churchill Container.At the show, Erik Johnson, director of Design & Product Development for Churchill Container, shared how the company’s partnership with PureCycle Technologies resulted in a souvenir cup for the sports industry that contains 50% rPP. Churchill, a producer of rigid souvenir cups and other containers for sporting and other venues, is constantly seeking new ways to provide more sustainable products to its customers. PureCycle’s purification technology takes waste PP and removes color, odor and other impurities for a recycled PP product that is indistinguishable from virgin materials.

Flexible Film Development Platform to Provide Sustainability Score

Dan Ward, Technical Specialist at NOVA ChemicalsDan Ward, Technical Specialist at NOVA ChemicalsDan Ward, Technical Specialist at NOVA Chemicals, shared news on a prototype of a new version of the company’s Bonfire Film Development Platform for modeling and simulating multilayer films. The enhancement will allow brands and converters to look at three metrics to create a sustainability score that compares different film selections during the design process.

Said Ward, “Flexible Packaging innovation has always been very challenging. But I believe today’s challenges are harder than ever, for two reasons. First, regulatory requirements are exploding and changing at light speed. And film manufacturers and brand owners are under incredible pressure to make or remake their flexible packaging to be more sustainable.”

He noted that the industry is now at the stage where sustainability needs to go beyond simple statements. “We need to be able to quantify it by agreed upon standards,” he said.

NOVA’s approach to sustainability within Bonfire is to provide a score based on current sustainability metrics, rules, and guidelines. “It’s really challenging, but we are writing code and creating some unique algorithms to come up with a meaningful and useful score for specific films and packages,” said Ward.

With the new sustainability algorithms “users will be able to take a deeper look at their package and see how material property or packaging format changes compare and affect their sustainability score,” he added.

The platform will focus on three key indices: recyclability, environmental impact, and circularity. “Recyclability has to do with the types of plastics and other ingredients used in our package and whether they are compatible with well-established PCR collection streams,” explained Ward. “Environmental impact is where we count carbons or CO2 equivalents to come up with a GHG score. And currently, we start counting at the point where feedstock enters the polymer plant and then set a point where the film is made. The third index is package circularity. Put simply this is the probability that a given package not only can but actually will be recycled. How likely is that is it that our flexible package can go through existing infrastructure to collect separate and reuse it as PCR.

“As time goes on, we may expand that upstream or downstream or additional processes and circularity, which looks at the degree to which finished package can easily be accepted, sorted, and reprocessed in today’s existing recycling infrastructure.”

Brands and converters can expect to see the new version of Bonfire with the sustainability scorecard feature in January 2026.  PW

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