Through Open 4.0 Sepro Sees Path to the ‘Factory of the Future’ 

By Jean-Michel Renaudeau, CEO, Sepro Group

For several years, we have been talking about robotic innovation in today’s plastics industry and how important openness and flexibility are to achieving success. Today, with so many companies talking about Industry 4.0 and how their products can help build ‘the factory of the future,” these factors are more important than ever.

One thing that almost everyone can agree on is the fact that connectivity is the key. Machines must connect to other machines and with a central computer network so that data – order information, process data, logistics, part quality reports, troubleshooting and other assistance programs – are immediately accessible with a minimum of human intervention. What is still somewhat uncertain is how we will get to that point of seamless connectivity.

Euromap, the U.S. Plastics Industry Association (Plastics) and other industry groups continue to work on communication protocols that make it easier to connect various proprietary systems. These protocols are essential, of course, but we believe connectivity – and, ultimately, Industry 4.0 – must be based on something more. We believe it must be built a doctrine of ‘openness’ that stands behind everything a company does. At Sepro, we coined the term “Open 4.0” to describe this fundamental philosophy and it is clearly visible in our business practices.

Open 4.0 Robot Control

The Sepro Visual control platform was developed long before people started talking about Industry 4.0 or connectivity. Our engineers knew that injection molders wanted robot controls that were flexible and intuitive. They did not want a system that required a programming engineer to create a robot cycle, so our Visual controls (and our Touch controls used for less technical applications) included simple pick-and-place software that guided even inexperienced operators through programming steps tailored specifically to the plastics injection-molding cycle. Molders didn’t want to have to re-train operators to understand and use a different control for different robot technologies, so we used the same human/machine interface for all our products and continue to do so today.

Over the years, we developed Visual 2 and Visual 3 to deliver the more advanced capabilities made possible by new technology and then required for the fast, precise all-servo robots that began to emerge. But that basic philosophy of flexibility and ease-of-use – today we would call this openness – was carried through in these newer controls. When Sepro began offering 6-axis, articulated-arm robots in addition to our Cartesian or linear products, the Visual platform was adapted to that new robot environment. Other 6-axis robot have controls developed for general industrial applications, and they can be difficult to program. With Visual controls and simple pick-and-place programming, injection molders find Sepro 6-axis robots much easier to program and operate.

Open 4.Integration

In recent years, as ‘integration’ has been identified as the key to efficiency and productivity, if not to Industry 4.0, Sepro engineers have been developing ways to integrate Visual robot controls with the controls that operate injection-molding machines. Working with IMM partners, they created three different levels of integration. They include Level 1, which mirrors the robot control screen on the IMM operator panel, Level 2, which makes it possible to link some frequently used robot functions to short-cut keys on the IMM, and Level 3 where robot control is fully embedded in the IMM control.

In other words, Sepro Visual is an ‘open’ system: open and transparent to the user, open to different robot technologies, and open to integration with injection-molding machines. But that is only the beginning. We are now working on the next generation of robot controls, featuring elements like ‘open’ ergonomics, similar to tablets, the ability to ‘learn by doing,’ 3D simulation to make programming easier, extensive customization, and software plug-ins to actively assist operators with functions like optimization of the robot cycle, routine maintenance and troubleshooting. New control features like these will be essential in the factory of the future

Open 4.0 Partnerships

The integration options developed for Sepro Visual controls have been aimed specifically at allowing more molders to purchase a robot that is packaged together with any injection-molding machine… not just machines made by the few companies that also make robots. Clearly there is a need in the market, particularly in Europe, for those kinds of packages, and Sepro wants to make them ‘open’ to all. In the United States, where packaged systems are less in demand, we may well see more interest as the number of suppliers participating expands.

Already today, Sepro has reached partnership agreements with 10 IMM suppliers, including almost all of the well-known global brands from Europe, including Germany; Asia, including China and Japan; and North and South America. Sometimes the robots carry Sepro branding, sometimes they are private labeled, and others are cobranded.

This is good for molders who now have more choice when it comes to IMM/robot packages, and good for the manufacturers too, because it gives them easy access to a market that previously may have been closed to them.

It is good for Sepro too, of course, but that is not the only point. A more important point is that, by being open to partnerships like these, we create opportunities not only for ourselves, but also for the machinery manufacturers. Most important, it provides more choices for the molders we all serve.

Open 4.0 Innovation

Among other things, the Sepro partnerships mentioned above have pushed us to expand our thinking and be open to new options. Manufacturing environments continue to change rapidly. Markets are more global and competition is stiffer than ever. As customers discover new opportunities around the world, they also find new competition in these emerging markets. Few companies can operate successfully if they remain isolated from the world around them.

These changes put a strain on every aspect of their business. New technology offers some advantages, but it advances so rapidly that it is difficult for any company, working on its own, to keep up.  So, communication and collaboration are also critical factors. And, accordingly, we see that manufacturers are turning to select suppliers not only to purchase equipment but also for new ideas and innovative solutions to the complex issues they face.

Sepro took this approach when it came to developing specialty robots for our in-mold labeling systems, which we developed with another French company, Machines Pagès, and for our 5-axis and 6-axis robots, which are made in partnership with Stäubli Robotics and Yaskawa Motoman. Sepro’s next-generation robot-control systems, which will be phased in over the next couple of years, are being developed in collaboration with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Recognized around the world, the Robotics Institute  is the oldest such institution in the U.S., and they have been helping us open our minds not only to what a robot control needs to be, but also to think about what such a control could be.

In that regard, some of the best ideas for improved robot controls have come from customers: the injection molders who use our robots and who know better than anyone else what they need from them. One new plug-in for Sepro controls, which will automate how robot motions are optimized during the set-up process to reduce cycle time inside the mold, was developed at the request of a global Tier 1 supplier to the automobile industry. They are helping to perfect the system and will be the first customer, but the technology will benefit anyone who wants to operate more efficiently.

We are also working closely with PROXINNOV, an innovation platform for the Pays de la Loire region in western France, where Sepro is located. The group focuses on promoting the use of robotic automation in that region.  And, since collaboration cannot be confined within one industry, Sepro is actively involved in developing innovative and agile management practices with Audencia Business School in Nantes, one of the top business schools in France and in Europe.

Open 4.0

Nobody knows exactly what the injection-molding factory of the future will look like, but we can be certain it will involve robots and other automation that operate with a minimum of human intervention. It will also need to be flexible and adaptable to changing markets and manufacturing demands. All this increases the importance of communication, integration and collaboration… not just between machines or employees of a single company, or suppliers and their customers. Innovation requires openness. Openness with a purpose. Openness to new ideas, new alliances and new possibilities.

At Sepro Group, innovation is about breaking down established boundaries and building new bridges that allow people, machines and companies to perform to their highest potential. That is how we intend to connect our customers to the future of robotics. We believe, “Your Future is Wide Open.”

Sepro is represented in Australia by:
Mitchell Industries
113 Porters Rd
Kenthurst NSW
[email protected]


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