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Digitalization will make products transparent, Thorsten Kühmann at VDMA says
Source:Adsale Plastics Network     Editor:VC    Date:11.Nov.2021

Digitalization and circular economy are the major topics at K 2022. In the VDMA interview for the lead-up to the K 2022, Thorsten Kühmann, Managing Director of Plastics and Rubber Machinery within the VDMA and Ingemar Bühler, Chief Executive Officer of PlasticsEurope Deutschland, discussed how digital transformation facilitates circular economy.

Plastic still has a poor reputation. What can the plastics industry do to ensure that the obvious advantages of the material are not overcast by its current negative image?


Kühmann: We must succeed in establishing a functioning circular economy, as the main cause for the bad image the public has of plastic is the waste that ends up in the environment and in the oceans.


Simply put, we have to make sure that waste does not end up in the environment, but if it can't be avoided, we must ensure that it is recycled. We, as an industry, can accomplish this task if we act as a body.


Bühler: The waste problem has not been taken seriously enough by the industrial sector for far too long - and has not been addressed for this reason. Manufacturers or processors have taken up the position that it is not they themselves who transport the waste into the environment, which, by the way, is correct.


In fact, many of the measures to tackle the waste problem must be taken by politicians. Regulations and laws are necessary. Nevertheless, companies and organizations must also consider how to get a grip on the problem. We have to do something ourselves and become part of the solution.


What can plastics manufacturers contribute? Is chemical recycling part of the solution?


Bühler: In essence, chemical recycling is about generating synthetic oil from used plastic, that means bringing it back to its original state. This can then be utilized again to manufacture high quality products. With mechanical recycling, on the other hand, it is very a difficult and complex process to create products equal or superior to recyclates.


In the future, chemical recycling will complement mechanical recycling most adequately, but will not replace it. The available capacity is not extensive enough and, at least at present, the amount of energy required is too high. But together, the two methods can lead to a situation where there is no more plastic waste because they will all be part of a cycle. 


Ingemar Bühler, Chief Executive Officer of PlasticsEurope Deutschland.


So what can machine manufacturers do?


Kühmann: We have been working on setting up cycles for quite a while. For example, we now have sound procedures for turning regranulates into new, high quality products. To do this, very different technologies have to be interlinked. We now also have the digital possibilities to track plastic products over their entire life cycle, to mark them. This makes them transparent, and you can now see what plastic types a product is made of. That is enormously important to know, because at the end of their life, the products have to be separated again and also recycled separately so that they can be reintroduced to the cycle.


This task concerns mechanical engineering; it concerns the manufacturing industry and the processing industry, and this is where we really have a very close exchange, of which we are now seeing the effects.

Thorsten Kuhmann_web.jpg

Thorsten Kühmann, Managing Director of Plastics and Rubber Machinery within the VDMA. 

So digitalization is the driver of the circular economy?


Kühmann: Digitalization of value chains has two main effects: firstly, the above-mentioned transparency, which enables traceability, and thereby facilitates the circular economy considerably. Products become transparent, so to speak. The second major advantage of digitalization is that it makes it much easier to control industrial processes. This generates a major push in the direction of sustainable management. You produce less waste, so you use less material and save valuable resources.


Digitalized processes are therefore a very useful addition to established processes within production.


Bühler: Digitalization is taking place on many levels. It is used in the development of new materials and material properties. It also changes production procedures, such as in mechanical engineering. And it changes the way plastics manufacturers cooperate with their customers. They often no longer manufacture a product and simply market it, but develop a product together with the customer instead, through joint simulation mechanisms.


Without question, the digital transformation facilitates the circular economy, but it extends far beyond that.


Circular economy is a long-term project. How can we fast-track convincing consumers of the benefits of plastics?


Kühmann: In addition to organizing a credible transformation process, we must seek a dialogue with the public. There are so many issues related to plastics that are quite pressing and sometimes very complex.


One step in this direction is the new initiative "We are plastics". In it, the associations of the plastics industry, i.e. those of the plastic manufacturers, plastic processing industry and plastic machinery industry, present facts and contexts, and offer all interested parties – from consumers to NGOs to politicians – the opportunity to enter into dialogue with us.


Bühler: Yes, for instance, we need to enlighten people about how necessary plastic products are for our lives, especially regarding a climate-neutral future. Plastics enable lightweight construction, electromobility, and the use of wind and solar energy. The advantage over other materials is considerable. And the possibilities are far from exhausted.



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