Industry 4.0 in extrusion – What does it mean and what is the benefit?

The term Industry 4.0 or Smart Factory is on everyone’s lips. But what is hidden behind this term and what does it mean for the plastics processing industry? What opportunities and chances arise from this and what risks does this “trend” entail?


The industrial revolution began with the use of hand or water-driven machines (Industry 1.0) and developed from electrically driven (assembly line) production (Industry 2.0) to industrial automation (Industry 3.0). The term “Industry 4.” (or often Smart Factory in non-German-speaking countries) refers to the age of industrial digitalization, networking, and computerization.

The development path towards Industry 4.0 is often divided into phases. Prof Schuh (of RWTH Aachen University) once divided the project into the following phases

  1. Visibility
  2. Transparency
  3. Predictability and
  4. Self-adaptation

which in my opinion can be used very well for plastics processing.


Industry 4.0 – useful for extrusion companies?

Even though the term Industry 4.0 is not clearly defined for the extrusion industry, we (SHS) understand the implementation / achievement of these subjects for extrusion (especially in the area of production)

  • Realisation of a robust, high quality production
  • Reduction/avoidance of scrap production
  • Ensuring processes with high productivity and product quality
  • Fast start-up, fast material changes
  • Support of the machine operators/relief of the employees

These goals can be achieved through the development and use of so-called virtual assistance systems.


Virtual assistants – the distance radar for the extrusion line

Similar to a distance radar in a car, a virtual production assistant supports the machine operator in his work by relieving him of clearly defined tasks.

A distance radar in a passenger can determines the distance to the vehicle in front on the basic of sensors and regulates the speed of the vehicle depending on the current driving speed and, if necessary, depending on external influences (e.g. weather, visibility). The speed of the vehicle is controlled by the system automatically adjusting various control variables (injection quantity, throttle valve, broke force, transmission stage).

A virtual production assistant – also depending on different sensor data – regulates certain control variables of the system in order to also achieve a present target. For example, it is conceivable that in an extrusion line the cooling situation (calibration) of a window profile is automatically adjusted depending on a deformation detected by sensors.

For this it is necessary that certain information from the process are available in such a way that computer-supported systems (similar to the control unit in a car) are able to process this information – the information must therefore be available digitally.

At the same time it is necessary that the virtual assistant “registers” the incoming digital information and has so much process understanding that it can derive meaningful conclusions from the incoming information (which in some cases can become very many). The system must be able to clearly classify certain events/problems in production and derive a sensible strategy to avoid them. If such an avoidance strategy can be defined, the assistant must ultimately still be able to intervene actuatory in the process.

The example shows that it is necassary to walk through all four development stages (see illustration) from “seeing” to “understanding” and “predicting” to “self-optimization” and thus falls into the “Industry 4.0” category.


Industry 4.0 same ascControl engineering?  – “It’s been around for years”

In such example scenarios, the correct criticism often follows that such regulations were technically possible even before the turn of the millennium (which is quite correct). In the context of Industry 4.0 scenarios, however, the focus is not on the development of individual control loops, but on the development of complex and universal assistants that are capable:

  • to understand the situation of the process independently
  • to recognize independently whether a process a process optimization is necessary
  • to work out independent optimization possibilities and
  • to put them into practice independently

Such a system should

  • detect environmental conditions
  • independently establish connections between sensors and other controls und
  • can learn from their own mistakes, so that they can
  • adapt to a new situation

In view of this, it quickly becomes clear, that “Industry 4.0 in plastics processing” can be something more than a PDA/MDA, an energy monitoring system or a control system.


Status today: development stage 1 in extrusion  

Most plastics processing companies are now in the first stage of development (or even at the very beginning of the first stage). The first phase (visibility) describes the digital recording of what happens in industrial production (extrusion).

This stage of the further development of a production company in the direction of Industry 4.0 is often also described as a necessary prerequisite that should precede all subsequent stages. This refers to the construction of a digital model (often a digital shadow or digital twin) of production. All relevant information of the production environment must be digitally recorded and stored centrally and accessible from different systems (e.g. in databases) so that computer-aided further processing is possible. However, this does not have to apply to the entire production process or all machines, but can also be implemented as an “isolated solution”.

In extrusion plants, for examples, this information is important and should, if possible, be available in digital form:

  • process parameters of the extrusion lines (throughput, material, pressure, speed, etc.)
  • process parameters of the extrusion periphery (cooling lines, fume cupboards, winders, blowers, calibres, etc.)
  • process parameters of central equipment (compressed air, refrigeration)
  • order planning and production planning
  • staffing plan
  • material usage
  • energy use

“Industry 4.0? Yes, we’ll do it!”

Nowadays, some of this information is often already available, as MDE or PDA systems are in operation or electrical energy consumption is recorded by energy monitoring solutions. If such systems are used, their use is often equated with the presence of Industrie 4 ., but it is not the same.

Nevertheless, this is the first and necessary step if a company is to be further developed towards Industry 4.0.

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Note: In my remarks I refer to “Industry 4.0” in the production environment. Of course, Industry 4.0 can also be applied to the areas of business model, sales, marketing and many other areas, but this is not the focus of consideration here.


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