Darwin’s Solution for Complex Plastics

International companies that come to Germany get direct access not only to Europe’s biggest market but to a unique R&D landscape. The Japanese–German conglomerate behind the DarWIN tool is a prime example.

 January 2023

Like many companies dealing in plastics, Sumitomo (SHI) Demag faced a problem. Environmentally conscious consumers are deeply skeptical of the material that is causing so much damage to ecosystems in our oceans and on land. But the core business of this medical instruments manufacturer, formed in 2008 after the merger of Japan’s Sumitomo Heavy Industries and Demag Plastics Group from Schwaig in Bavaria, depended on it.

Artificial intelligence (AI) offered a possible way forward for optimizing plastics-processing machinery by making it more efficient and sustainable. There was just one problem. “Being a classic machine builder, AI is obviously not our home turf,” says Dr. Thorsten Thümen, Sumitomo (SHI) Demag’s senior director of technology. That made the firm “very keen to connect to Germany’s network of AI-related start-ups.” It didn’t have to search long for a solution.

The Bottom Line

Research institutes, clusters and their spin-offs help the private sector solve complex technical problems and are a major advantage for international companies with a presence in Germany.

Survival of the fittest

Meet DarWIN, a new research project from the start-up plus10, an AI spin-off of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA). The project’s focus was to develop an intelligent optimization tool for the sort of injection-molding machines Sumitomo (SHI) Demag needs to make its products for medical and electronics customers.

“Injection molding is a very complex industrial field with many influencing factors, and we hope that the results of DarWIN will help us understand for which processes AI may provide feasible future solutions,” says Thümen.

Aside from speeding up injection molding and reducing plastics wastage during the process, DarWIN’s AI can also be programmed to facilitate the separation of heterogeneous plastics – such as post-consumer scrap – in an economically viable manner. If successful, it would represent an evolutionary step for the plastics recycling industry.

DarWIN allows machines to teach one another, so that computing behavior patterns do not have to be learned from scratch by another device every time a new product is adopted. Smart machines only need a short calibration phase: This involves algorithms proposing optimized process parameters for the next production cycle under given conditions, such as raw material characteristics and the shopfloor climate.

In January this year, DarWIN saw its final testing series on machinery provided by Sumitomo (SHI) Demag. Through its contribution to DarWIN, which also included funding a real test environment, the Japanese–German company is directly supporting innovation for the next generation of machines, as well as safeguarding its own future.

Top notch R&D clusters

The Sumitomo (SHI) Demag machines used in DarWIN are fully electric – a capability added by the company in recent years when it dedicated one of its two German plants entirely to building machines that have full electric control. According to the company’s CEO, Gerd Liebig, the change initially resulted in a reduction of orders but has since proven rewarding. “Our forecast that the markets will shift toward sustainability has been met, and our timely decision has translated into a major competitive advantage,” Liebig says.

That advantage is directly related to Germany’s one-of-a-kind, multivalent R&D landscape. Plus10, for instance, is part of the Cyber Valley research cluster in the southwestern regional state of Baden-Württemberg, which has become a go-to destination for companies seeking to enhance their products through basic AI research. Plus10 has an intense research exchange with Germany’s renowned Max Planck Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute, which also maintains an office in Japan. In the case of DarWIN, the start-up worked with Germany’s largest plastics research institute SKZ in Würzburg, Bavaria. SKZ covers the whole range of plastics research, including materials, machinery and processes.

“The good cluster networking as well as our own interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, spanning control technology, AI software development and production engineering, enables us to always bring our AI research fully into the industrial context,” explains Felix Müller, chief executive and cofounder of plus10.

In Japan, Hiroshi Iwamura, director of the Tokyo office of Germany’s international business promotion agency GTAI, spends a lot of time talking to Japanese small and medium-sized businesses in the manufacturing systems engineering sector, especially in automatization and robotics. He says that Japanese companies like Sumitomo are interested not only in Germany’s huge market but also in its excellent research and supportive cluster landscape. “International companies can link up with the top-notch research infrastructure and use the know-how of research institutions to develop their products,” Iwamura says.

Fraunhhofer: Bridging R&D Between Japan & Germany

Interview with Kazuhiro Hayashida, assistant manager, Fraunhofer Representative Office Japan

How does the Fraunhofer ­Representative Office Japan facilitate cooperation between Fraunhofer and Japanese science and industry?

We act as a bridge between Fraunhofer’s 76 institutes and Japanese customers from industry, academia and other sectors. In 2021, we achieved contract research revenue of EUR 15.2 million from Japanese industrial customers and we receive around 300 inquiries from companies here every year. Those research projects relate to a wide variety of fields including microelectronics, surface and production technology, IT, materials and innovation research and life sciences. We are happy to support and coordinate R&D projects and play our part in building a win-win situation between Germany and Japan.

What makes the German R&D landscape interesting for Japanese ­industry?

With its cutting-edge research facilities and technologies, Fraunhofer provides R&D services near the customer. We often receive inquiries from customers who had tried to find appropriate research institutes for their technological challenges and then finally find the right solutions at Fraunhofer. There is also a lot of interest here in the collaboration between industry and academia – collaboration which characterizes Fraunhofer. Reflecting this, Japan’s Minister for Reconstruction, Kosaburo Nishime, visited three Fraunhofer institutes in Stuttgart in May 2022.


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