Apps, teleconferencing guide machine installations from afar

Feb. 17, 2021
OEMs, clients are growing more comfortable with remote commissioning of machines around the world, driven in part by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

By Karen Hanna 

COVID-19 has brought home to many companies the need to be able to work remotely. OEMs that have adapted to testing and commissioning their machinery and molds from afar say the new practice might outlast the pandemic, thanks to advantages in terms of costs and convenience. 

“Customers are consistently telling us they are pleased with the results of the remote testing approach, and, of course, it also saves time and travel costs,” said Jordan Robertson, VP of development and marketing for StackTeck. With eight test machines, ranging in clamping capacities from about 110 tons to 830 tons, StackTeck has enhanced its virtual mold testing capabilities.

StackTeck, a global manufacturer of multi-cavity, high-volume production molds, is among a variety of companies touting new remote testing and commissioning options. For them, Industry 4.0 abilities to collect data and control equipment via cell phones and other devices have merged with communications apps and video technologies to make possible new ways to work with customers. 

“I think the lines of communication and how people communicate in general have changed globally with things like [Microsoft] Teams and WhatsApp,” said Paul Phillips, the sales and marketing manager for GN Thermoforming, a Canadian OEM that used the WhatsApp messaging platform to install a machine in Russia.  

From mold makers to injection molding machine makers, the practice has caught on.  

A collaboration between recycling equipment maker STF Group and technicians working for Germany-based STF Group used daily online video conferences to hook up a $2 million bottle-washing and recycling plant in Haiti about 5,000 miles away. The effort demonstrates how small the world has become amid a pandemic that has hit all seven continents. The project, part of HP’s Planet Partners recycling program, recovers ocean plastic. 

Video conference services, such as Teams and Zoom, along with the large-file-transfer capabilities of WeTransfer and Dropbox facilitated the arrangement, according to STF, which is represented in the U.S. by Zimmer America. 

In-machine technologies are key, too. 

Arburg’s IIoT Gateway, for example, allows transfers of machine data from the host computer to multiple devices, giving users access to Arburg’s customer portal and remote-service options.  

Offered as standard since October on all new Allrounder presses, this service allows Arburg technicians working from their own sites to install machines in their customers’ plants. With the connectivity, the technicians can view machine control data and diagnostics, guiding customers to make necessary adjustments, said Gerhard Böhm, Arburg’s managing director of sales. 

“During the process, our sales experts go through the requirements specification together with the customer. Sources of assistance include a special camera, which enables a visual approval test of all requirements to be carried out, with each individual point being checked in turn,” he said. “On completion of the acceptance process, the customer receives a detailed report including additional documentation in the form of images.” 

GN Thermoforming’s Phillips said while his company has depended on fairly commonplace messaging tools, rather than sleek new technologies like Google Glass eyewear, the process has worked well and customer acceptance has grown. 

“Obviously, with the world the way it is right now, with the second and third [pandemic] waves hitting at different times over different parts of the world, we’ve had to do whatever we’ve had to do to be creative … to meet [our customers’] expectations from a delivery standpoint,” he said. “Coming with that is obviously the installation and training that comes with the new piece of equipment. We’ve had to do a mixture, a hybrid of different things, depending on where the customer’s installation was. Some of it was fully remote, [including] the installation and training. Some was a mixture, and some we got a chance to get it in person. So, we’ve used all three avenues.” 

He acknowledged some of the nuances of in-person interaction can be lost with remote service and installation. But GN Thermoforming has adapted. 

“Instead of physically being there, you go through an installation checklist and then a training checklist. You’re asking the customer on the other end to go back and forth and saying, ‘Do this,’ and then you’re making sure that it’s done, and then you move on to the next item,” he said. “We’ve had to do quite a bit more preparation time in terms of the manuals and in terms of our training plans and training preparations, as well as more videos to help show customers what to do. So, it’s made us stronger as an organization.” 

WM Thermorforming, which last year installed three machines in Russia in five days using remote interfaces, also is looking for ways to streamline the process. One key advantage already is in its toolkit — the unique single-frame design of its thermoformers, which allows company technicians to assemble the machines in just three or four days, or five to seven days via remote hookup. Other companies require about nine or 12 days.

WM Thermoforming plans to continue commissioning via remote interfaces with customers familiar with its technologies, and, with new customers, in anticipates sending technicians only for pre-check, machine initialization and training.

It said it believes doing so will reduce installation time, increase work quality and necessitate fewer trips, reducing environmental impact.

On the other end of the interaction are plastics processors, many deemed essential businesses, that have also learned to adapt. 

Aura Colmenares is the development manager for Phoenix Packaging Mexico, a maker of rigid packaging based in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico. He deemed a recent physically distanced handoff of molds from StackTeck a success.   

“We had a series of our molds virtually approved,” he said, describing the setup as a new experience. “The communication, the videos received, the meetings with StackTeck and the technical support were very good.” 

Shaped by crisis, the new processes could have a future in the post-pandemic world, OEM representatives said. 

“The approach saves time and money and offers great potential for the future,” Arburg’s Böhm said. 

Karen Hanna, associate editor

[email protected]


Arburg Inc., Rocky Hill, Conn., 860-667-6500,  

GN Thermoforming, Chester, Nova Scotia, 902-275-3571,  

StackTeck Ltd., Brampton, Ontario, 416-749-1698,  

WM Thermoforming Machines, Stabio, Switzerland, 41-916-4070-50,

Zimmer America Recycling Solutions, CowpensS.C.864-464-0007,  

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.