Canadian Plastics
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Schad’s Athena Automation hits the stage

Famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there are no second acts in American lives. Lucky for him he wasn’t looking north of the border, because up here in Canada, plastics industry pioneer Robert Schad is well into Act 2, Scene 4.


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July 26, 2013 by Canadian Plastics

A 300 ton Athena hybrid injection molding machine.
A 300 ton Athena hybrid injection molding machine.

Famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there are no second acts in American lives. Lucky for him he wasn’t looking north of the border, because up here in Canada, plastics industry pioneer Robert Schad is well into Act 2, Scene 4.

For the past five years, the 85-year-old Schad — famed as the founder of Husky Injection Molding Systems — has been working virtually around the clock to develop a new line of hybrid injection molding machines and lights-out technology under the name Athena Automation Ltd. Repeating the Husky trick won’t be easy, but in the past two years especially, Schad and his 62 co-workers at Vaughan, Ont.-based Athena have been making real progress: validating machines in production mode, and, as of 2012, selling the first units on the commercial market.

In December 2012, a new piece of the puzzle was put in place, as Athena announced a partnership with Italian packaging solutions specialist SIPA SpA to build a line of automated PET preform injection and blow molding equipment.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

At present, Athena offers 150 ton and 300 ton hybrid injection molding machines, and 150 ton and 300 ton PET machines with integrated robots; the complete line will be 100-400 tons. As Schad and Athena’s vice president of sales Jim Overbeeke tell it, a primary function of the Athena presses is to supply the marketplace with three advantages over conventional machines. First, simplicity of design. “We developed a very simple, basic platform that can be quickly customized for specific markets,” Schad said. “The machines offer excellent shot-to-shot accuracy, noise levels consistently around 70dB, and dry cycle times of about two seconds. They also come with a wide range of options, such as an integrated, space-efficient side-entry four-axis robot within the machine; a PET package; a closure package; a stack mold carrier that can accommodate rotary cube molds; and the choice of water process systems.”

And the control system, Overbeeke said, is designed to reduce wiring complexity; allow modular expansion; and interconnect sub-systems such as main controls, injection controls, human-machine interface, robots, and other components via a Powerlink protocol for real-time communication. “There are only three levels to the control program, which means that any piece of information can be obtained by the operator in two taps on the touchscreen,” he said.

The second goal — which won’t come as a surprise to those who know about Schad’s longstanding involvement in environmentalism — is energy efficiency. “Our 150 ton hybrid machine has been tested against a leading all-electric machine and provides about the same specific energy consumption at a higher output,” Schad said.

The third must-have is a small footprint that gives maximum output per floor space. “Our goal is to offer the largest daylight, with the benchmark on shut height and stroke, with the smallest footprint,” Overbeeke said. “Related to that, we’ve removed all hoses and cables from the floor and lifted each machine six inches off the ground, to allow for easy cleaning underneath.”

Athena’s new partnership with SIPA is another sign that, after years of gestation, the company has reached the next stage in its development. In a move to create a global product line and service organization, SIPA will handle the sales, service, and integration of all Athena PET preform machines worldwide, on an exclusive basis. “There’s a perfect synergy between the two companies,” Schad explained. “In the smaller machine market — up to 96 cavities — we think we’re leapfrogging the rest of the industry; SIPA manufacturers the larger machines, meanwhile, so it’s a very good combination. SIPA’s unique packaging know-how combined with our preform system will deliver real value to our customers.” Also, SIPA and Athena will come out with the first preform machine, a 32-cavity system, this summer, followed by higher cavity models.

GROWTH STRATEGY

Located near Toronto Pearson International Airport, Athena’s 40,000-square-foot headquarters has everything you’d expect from Schad: solar panels on the roof that tie into the province’s feed-in tariff program, skylights, motion-activated LED lighting, geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient washrooms, and low-maintenance landscaping for the company’s employees.

But it’s about to be overshadowed — literally — when Athena begins a planned expansion. “We’ve purchased 20 acres of surrounding land, and will build an assembly and integration facility, to be finished as early as 2015, that will be four to five times larger than our current building,” Schad said. “We certainly require the space, but it’s also important for demonstrating to our employees and our customers that Athena is going to be around for the long term.”

Three key words in the above are “assembly and integration”. One thing Athena won’t do, Schad said, is store pre-assembled machines before purchase. “We intend to build our machines just-in-time,” he said. “This means shortening the building cycle — which we’re in the process of doing — but in the end it’s a better way to build customer-specific machines. Successful processors allow for machine assembly time when placing an order, and we want to work with successful processors.”

Speaking of being successful, how does Schad assess Athena’s progress, five years in? “The company is approximately one year behind schedule, mostly because of patent considerations: we’ve developed 28 unique inventions, and filed over 50 patent applications,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m extremely happy with the staff we’ve put together, with the overall performance of our machines, and with the fact that we’ve solved some issues that have long hampered PET processing. All of these have been possible because Athena was started from scratch with the goal of designing a hybrid injection molding platform on a clean slate.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any hurdles left to overcome. “Perhaps our biggest technical challenge, shared with every other injection molding machine maker, will be satisfying the industry’s ultimate demand for products — including multi-material parts — that come completely assembled out of the machine, rather than as post-molding operations,” Schad said. “Tomorrow’s processors will want everything combined in one simple system, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

Sounds like he’s already planning Act 3.