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China's Star Rapid sees future in Industry 4.0


Zhongshan, China - There's data. There's automation. And then there's intelligent manufacturing. And woe unto the management team that confuses them, says new CEO David Hunter at China's Star Rapid Ltd.

"Intelligent manufacturing means, in simple terms, humans and machines in harmony. Automation is a very small part of it," Hunter said. "It's very easy to over-automate and lose flexibility."

Flexibility is very much on the mind of the smallish - current headcount: 288 - British-owned but China-based company whose services include rapid prototyping, rapid tooling and small-run injection molding.

Hunter joined the company in July to lead a two-year plan to implement what he calls "fully integrated intelligent manufacturing" - the term he prefers to Industry 4.0 - that links everyone from suppliers to customers.

Whatever it's called, Star's move is a sign that such next-generation manufacturing processes are picking up steam in China, traditionally the home of low-cost manufacturing. Facing rising costs, the country is increasingly trying to replace that business model with its "Made in China 2025" industrial upgrade strategy.

"Our objective is to have a fully automated, fully connected factory by August 2020. Machine to machine, machine to human," said Hunter, a Londoner with two decades of experience in Chinese manufacturing. "Customers will be able to tap into the system at any time and see where their project is. Our suppliers will have access, so we can have automatic replenishment driven by the system."

Right now, though, he's firmly focused on internal processes at the company's facility, in the city of Zhongshan, about 50 miles northwest of Hong Kong.

"We're connecting our equipment with our servers and our systems so that we can pull real-time data from our machines," he said. "This eliminates people filling in spreadsheets and checklists. We'll have all that data come directly from the machine."

A key is collating the data - "the running parameters of the machine, the heat, the pressure, cycle time, the shots from the tool" - so it's usable on the shop floor, said Hunter, most recently vice president of operations and quality at Zhuhai-based flexible- and printed-circuits manufacturer Multek, a subsidiary of Flex Ltd.

The process is "really driven by the engineers and the operators," he said. "It's what do we need to do as a management team to make their jobs easier and more successful," he said. "Most organizations can produce terabytes of data but not understand what it's telling them."

After that, Hunter plans to lead Star Rapid into the bold new worlds of augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"AR [with special glasses and iPads] means we can train people on a machine without the machine," Hunter said.

A quality control pilot project is underway to use a camera to spot defects, he said: "You have to train the equipment, of course, but it's continuous improvement, continuous learning."

Added technology

For processors, a frequent and aggravating bottleneck arises whenever a mold is loaded into an injection molding machine and parameters must be set by hand.

Hunter wants to streamline this tedious process by attaching near-field communication (NFC) chips or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that set the parameters automatically.

Star Rapid is examining blockchain technology to maintain the integrity of supply chain.

"These things are quite simple to manage, you just have to think of things differently," Hunter said.

British engineer Gordon Styles, currently Star Rapid's president and chief technology officer, launched the firm in 2005 under the name Star Prototype Manufacturing Co. Ltd. His goal: piggyback Western-style rapid prototyping and rapid tooling capabilities on China's lower costs and technical know-how.

Styles is a prototyping veteran who founded Styles RPD in Middlesbrough, England, in 1993 and sold it in 2000. Star Prototyping moved into its current factory in 2009. By 2014, sales were $14 million.

It has grown to 1,000 customers, with its biggest markets the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. It makes parts for a variety of end markets, for automotive, medical and industrial, in applications such as wearable fitness trackers or prosthetics with sensors to learn about the wearer's body.

Two years ago, the privately held firm rechristened itself Star Rapid to reflect its expanding portfolio of services, which now includes CNC tooling, pressure die casting, vacuum casting, metal additive manufacturing and finishing services.

The addition of small-run manufacturing helped fuel a nearly 40 -plus-percent jump in sales last year, Hunter said.

Sales are on track to grow another 15 percent this year and Hunter expects even stronger growth in the coming years as the company's intelligent manufacturing plans kick in.

The company plans to expand its current roster of 10 injection molding machines from Haitian and BabyPlast.

"It is the fastest-growing part of our business," Hunter said.

New language

At times, he sounds a bit like one of the new breed of Ivy League-educated baseball general managers as he waxes rhapsodic about "predictive analytics" and tosses out acronyms like FMEA (failure mode effects analyses) and PFMEA (Process Failure Mode Effects Analyses).

"Intelligent manufacturing is using intelligent data, machine learning, automation, things like augmented reality and predictive analytics in a way that really drives behavior throughout the organization," he said. "And it links into lean manufacturing from the point of view that it's really about eliminating waste."

He gave a simple example: eliminating steps in drilling a hole in a plastic box.

"Today we do the injection molding, we semifinish, we pack, then it goes to a drilling machine. So, why have the secondary processing? Why have people to move the product around?" he asked rhetorically. "I want the drilling machine on the injection molding machine."

As another example, the company is eyeing a future where its factory is optimized for automatic guided vehicles, Hunter said, "so we don't need to have people moving forklifts around; we don't need to have people palletizing."

Hunter anticipates fully implementing such intelligent manufacturing systems will lead to a 50 percent growth over the next few years. But he expects the current headcount to barely budge.

"We're just putting the foundations in place so we can be completely scalable," he said. "One of the beauties of intelligent manufacturing is we don't need so many operators, but we need top-notch engineers. That changes the culture, changes our recruitment policies."

A common complaint among Chinese plastics processors is the difficulty of recruiting and retaining factory workers. But Hunter is confident that intelligent manufacturing will make Star Rapid attractive to bright minds.

"We'll bring in engineers, data scientists, statisticians. We can also train our operators and move them up to technicians or engineers," he said.

The company is considering expansion but wants to stay in Zhongshan.

"Product life cycles are now shorter than ever before," he said. "We have pretty much all our suppliers within 30 to 45 minutes of here. That means we can keep the agility that our business is all about."

China is pushing into Industry 4.0 technologies to stay competitive, Hunter said.

"I want to be in the forefront of what's happening in manufacturing so that we have a significant competitive advantage in the short term and we maintain that competitive advantage going forward," he said. "With Made in China 2025, more and more people are going to embrace this."

He believes China and developed manufacturing economies see Industry 4.0 the same way.

"In the West, if you don't have intelligent manufacturing today, it's almost impossible to compete," Hunter said. "China has also recognized that."


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