By Michael LeGault, editor
It is surprising that consumer and business electronics, a market known for effectively combining leading-edge technology with advanced materials processing, should be one of the last high-use plastic...
It is surprising that consumer and business electronics, a market known for effectively combining leading-edge technology with advanced materials processing, should be one of the last high-use plastics end markets to be affected by the trend for brand distinction and product differentiation. Uniqueness, aesthetics and stylistic statements, factors which now figure significantly in consumer preference of automotive or packaging designs, have played a much smaller role in the purchase decision, and therefore design, of electronics. In the mind of the electronics designer a white or taupe opaque plastic box, whether it housed a computer, TV or copier, was thought to be sufficient for a market more interested in steak than sizzle. No more.
What has been started by the likes of Nokia with cell phones and Apple with its line of iMac computers–i.e. the use of stylish, youthful design and non-traditional materials to create product brand distinction–will likely expand across the spectrum of consumer and business electronics, says Greg Quinn, GE Plastics manager, field marketing programs. Quinn says the use of resins employing colors and special effects in the electronics market is growing by leaps and bounds.
“Apple’s iMac computer is just one example of multiple applications that are looking for different materials to improve product differentiation in the market,” says Quinn. “Now all the companies that work in computers and computer accessories are taking a look at methods and materials to do it.”
GE recently launched a new line of decorative materials, CYCOLAC Magix resins, which contains different types and amounts of metallic flake to create striking effects on the surface of a part (55).
According to CYCOLAC product leader Rick Stepien, GE Plastics intends to use the resin for new product development within the ABS market. Decoration is an intrinsic, straight-from-the mold feature for CYCOLAC resin which helps to eliminate the economic and environmental costs associated with secondary operations such as painting, metallizing or sublimation printing, Stepien notes. Some of the effects the resin can provide include the high gloss of a marble surface, the shadow, light and 3-D visual effect of rugged granite, the rich look of gun metal, the glittering appearance of gold dust and other stone, metallic and fluorescent appearances.
New materials on the horizon
Even in the short term, creating product distinction will not relieve consumer/business electronics designers and manufacturers from meeting the mandate to keep a lid on costs. New, more cost-effective materials will offer designers one way to achieve both objectives–cost control and enhanced product aesthetics.
Dow Plastics has recently launched a new family of high-impact polystyrene resins it will market as STYRON A-TECH advanced technology polystyrene (56). According to Jeff Denton, global marketing manager, polystyrene, Dow, the STYRON A-TECH series will balance the four key properties of gloss, toughness, stiffness and flow in combinations not previously available in polystyrene. Says Denton: “These four properties usually work against one another rather than for one another. Typically you cannot improve the performance of one without reducing the performance of another.”
Dow is targeting the new resins for a number of applications in the consumer electronics arena, says Denton. The combination of good flow properties, toughness and high gloss make the STYRON series especially well-suited for use in television cabinetry, Denton notes. In these and other electronics markets, the resin will primarily compete with ABS and other grades of polystyrene.
Denton says the STYRON A-TECH resin is not based on metallocene or compounding technology, but an innovation which uses Dow’s expertise in polymer science and manufacturing to get around the limitation of having to trade one property for another as required with more conventional HIPS technology. The first grade of the new resin, STYRON A-TECH 1110, became commercially available in North America last month.
AlliedSignal is currently developing several grades of non-halogenated, flame-retardant nylon 6 that offer improved environmental performance and reduce corrosion in molding equipment compared to halogenated nylon (57). The first two grades likely to be commercialized are a UL94-V2 and V0 grades that will be suited for a host of electronic applications in which flame retardancy is a requirement, according to Mike Warner, AlliedSignal market development manager. AlliedSignal is also offering two grades of glass-reinforced, V0-rated polyester, co-polymer-based Petra 130 FR, and homopolymer-based Petra 330 FR (58). Warner says the materials are targeted for connector applications and insulation system components such as bobbins and coil encapsulation. The 330 FR grade has better flow properties and releases more quickly and easily from the mold than competitive grades, notes Warner.
Another new product from Dow, metallocene-based QUESTRA crystalline polymers (59), will also have a significant impact on the internal side of the consumer and business electronic market, according to Karen Fennessy-Ketola, market developement manager, engineering compounds. Dow is targeting QUESTRA at both medium- and high-heat connector applications used in printed circuit boards and wiring inside devices such as computers, cellular telephones, video cameras and other products, says Fennesy-Ketola. This will position QUESTRA to compete on the medium-heat side with PBT, and on the high-heat side with LCP, high-temperature nylon and PPS.
Fennessy-Ketola says QUESTRA provides a distinct advantage over other competing resins because manufacturers of printed circuit boards are moving to the newer surface mount technology. The technology allows manufacturers to pack more components on a given area of board but also uses much higher heat in the manufacturing process. Resins such as PBT and nylon cannot meet this high-temperature requirement, notes Fennessy-Ketola, while alternatives such as LCP and PPS are considerably more expensive than QUESTRA.
Modular designs growing
Studying the relationship between design, processing and materials is one way designers are gaining a better understanding of methods to both reduce built-in costs and improve aesthetics of consumer/business electronics. One recent example of the use of this integrated approach involved the manufacturing of panels for electronics cabinets used in Hewlett Packard’s office server and networking equipment. Large, bulky metal panels were replaced with smaller modular panels made of GE Plastics’ CYCOLOY PC/ABS resin (60).
GE’s Quinn says in addition to improved aesthetics and brand distinction, the panels, equipped with snap-fit design, are easier to service. Also, notes Quinn, the panels are designed to be used in three different-sized cabinets, which means less inventory and overhead during manufacturing. Molded-in color eliminates paint and its associated costs.
“There is a trend toward scalability of these types of units,” notes Joel Fouquart, GE technical manager. “The life cycle of the electronics inside may be shorter, so manufacturers are trying to design these products in such a way that the old system can be upgraded or added to instead of replaced.”
The 35 in. by 16 in. panels were made using a combination of sequential injection molding and gas assist molding. This combination allowed the large-sized panels to be molded on a 650-ton press, rather than a 1000-ton or above press that would have been needed using a conventional injection molding process. Gas assist also helped eliminate sink marks and provided a high quality surface that would not require painting.
“People are seeing you can get some nice cost savings by using gas assist to reduce the processing costs associated with running a smaller tonnage press,” notes Fouguart. CPL