The VDMA has conducted a series of ‘Way2K’ industry interviews in the lead-up to the K 2022 trade fair. In this interview with Dr. Stefan Engleder, CEO of Engel Austria GmbH, he discusses the perception of plastics and the need for the industry to work towards a more circular economy. As he notes: "The image of plastics must improve.”
Dr. Engleder, what options does an injection moulding machine manufacturer have to reduce the CO2 footprint?
As a mechanical engineering company, we start by reducing the CO2 footprint within our own company. This means, for example, that we purchase green electricity, install PV systems, and reduce the share of fossil fuels. Our sustainability strategy aims at making production as climate neutral as possible at all our locations worldwide. In addition, we keep an eye on our customer production, and continuously reduce the CO2 footprint of our products, the injection moulding machines. Very efficient drive technologies have already led to their energy requirement being reduced by half. Optimised processes and temperature control solutions tailored to the application can reduce energy requirements even further. We also use digitalisation, such as assistance systems. For climate protection however, it is not only important to have new, efficient machines, it is equally important that the installed base is converted, for example with retrofit solutions or assistance systems that can also be upgraded. Action must be taken more swiftly within this field because an injection moulding machine will last for 20 years or more.
In the face of current problems such as war and high energy prices, many fear that climate protection and also the circular economy will disappear from the agenda. What’s your take on this?
The main topic at the moment is certainly saving energy because energy is scarce and expensive, but ultimately this development also serves the goal of CO2 reduction. Our customers are increasingly looking at the total cost of ownership, and energy plays a decisive role in this, both in the intake of the machine itself and in the raw material. The focus continues to be on the circular economy, even if perhaps there is less talk about that subject right now in view of the various crises. Closing the reusable material cycle is an endeavour that will stretch over years, and a lot of the work continues to be done in Europe. In other parts of the world, in Asia or in the USA, it is not being pushed forward with the same intensity. Nevertheless: the circular economy is on the way.
Will this be more of a competitive disadvantage or a competitive edge for the European plastics industry?
If we can manage the circular economy in such a way that it is both ecological and economical, it will be a competitive advantage, plus, if we also work in a resource-efficient way, we will also be paying less for raw materials and energy. Maybe that will not be the case at the beginning, when the entire operation is not yet scalable, but in the medium and long term it will be cheaper. What is important, is that European policy in particular sets the right, achievable goals and pursues them consistently. However, if we all do the right thing together, I am sure that the circular economy will bring advantages for our industry over international competition.
Digitalisation is a tool in various processes. How great is its benefit for Engel?
Digitalisation helps us on two levels. On the one hand, directly in connection with the machines – keyword assistance systems. These are becoming increasingly important, also because the lack of personnel is becoming increasingly evident; we already have an enormous shortage of trained machine operators. Digital assistance systems make it possible for the machines to work relatively autonomously and also optimise themselves. So, the machines are becoming much easier to operate. The lack of personnel is an issue that is not yet being discussed as much as the issue of carbon emissions, but that will change in the next few years, and in most parts of the world.
Digitalisation also helps to connect the individual parts of the value chain horizontally. Plastics processing is a very specialised process with many different stages in the value chain. It makes sense and is also necessary for a circular economy to use common data and establish common interfaces. This starts with the recycler, who prepares the material, and continues through the producers and packers to retailers and consumers.
Many parties find it difficult to exchange information however...
That's how it is right now, and the trend towards uncoupling – a consequence of the Covid pandemic – has made it even more difficult. Nevertheless, horizontal exchange is possible if it is approached in a well-considered manner. Data leaks must be prevented, and only relevant data should be exchanged. This is already working quite well. It also helps that large consumer goods manufacturers put pressure on the entire manufacturing chain because they themselves are under public pressure.
In particular as packaging contributes significantly towards the bad image of plastic...
Yes, plastic does not have a good image, but the more people engage with it, the more they realise its advantages, such as when packaging makes food last longer and therefore less is thrown away – or when plastic enables lightweight construction, which in turn contributes to CO2 reduction. Looking at it from a self-critical perspective, it must be said – and here I return to the topic of circular economy – that the plastics industry has not yet managed to close the loops for all materials. That is its most important task, we are working intensively on it, and this is something we communicate, as it is the only way we can correct the image people have of plastics and the plastics industry. It is also necessary for our industry to recruit well-trained employees.