Canadian Plastics

Electronics products charge market with opportunities

By Michael Legault   

How big is the consumer electronics market? This year sales of consumer electronics goods from manufacturers to dealers will surpass $95.6 billion, which is up from $80 billion just two years ago, acc...

How big is the consumer electronics market? This year sales of consumer electronics goods from manufacturers to dealers will surpass $95.6 billion, which is up from $80 billion just two years ago, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of pie to go around.

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show showcased much new technology, and with it, a glimpse of the future direction of electronics manufacturing.

It’s a digital world

The growth and miniaturization of digital devices will be accelerated by the introduction of the world’s smallest hard drive. IBM’s one-gigabyte, matchbook-sized Microdrive is already finding its way into personal digital assistants (PDAs), digital cameras and other devices, dramatically increasing memory and storage, and at the same time providing designers more space and freedom to create consumer-friendly products.


Casio, for example, is selling a wrist watch equipped with a digital camera. The watch takes up to 100 black and white digital photos by pointing the watch face at the subject and clicking a button on the watch bezel. The photos can then be downloaded to PC software for enhanced imaging.

Digital photos, video clips, audio files and data can be downloaded to an award-winning portable smart storage device, the Digital Wallet, replacing the need to lug around a PC. Conceived by the California-based design-engineering firm, Minds@Work, the device has six gigabytes of storage capacity and eliminates the need to buy multiple Flash cards for digital cameras.

Michael Bajc, vice president of operations, says the Digital Wallet is an example of a product designed to meet the new market needs created by consumer digital technology.

“Digital picture taking habits are different than those practiced with an ordinary camera,” says Bajc. “People tend to experiment more and take more shots with a digital camera.”

The Digital Wallet is manufactured entirely in the U.S. The Wallet’s housing is injection molded on a three-piece tool, and comes in two colors: a translucent blue, made from a colored polycarbonate, and gray, made from a grade of GE Plastics’ Cycolac ABS.

The wireless, mobile office

The most significant development in consumer electronics is the growth of mobile, hand-held devices that allow users to access the Internet, e-mail and files without being linked to a wired personal computer. Wireless phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other pocket-size hand-held computers are evolving to incorporate many of the features once found only in a desktop computer.

With a 75 percent market share of the worldwide market, and a 102 percent increase in revenues, to US$522 million, over the most recent fiscal year, Palm, Inc. has single-handedly defined the hand-held computer market. The company’s product line consists of four distinct series of handhelds: the Palm m100, Palm III, Palm V and Palm VII.

Palm declined to give detailed information about the manufacturing of its handhelds, other than to say they are designed and made in the United States. Rich Gioscia, Palm’s director of design, says the company makes design decisions based on who the product is targeted toward. The Palm V, for example, was created for professionals of either sex, which accounts for durable but stylish metal-like design. The Palm m100 was created for the casual user and new buyers in the PDA market. Materials for the m100, he notes, were chosen for their price point and ability to reflect a fun, friendly, personalized appearance.

Home medical diagnostics

Lifestream Technologies’ Personal Cholesterol Monitor is part of a growing trend of personal medical monitoring devices designed for in-home use as a complement to physician-supervised medical care. The device was approved by the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration last year and is targeted for the nearly 100 million Americans with elevated cholesterol levels. It is the first consumer health device to use encrypted Microsoft Smart Card technology to securely store test results and share them with health care providers via the Internet.

Jackson Connolly, vice-president product development, says the product was designed following FDA guidelines for good development practices.

The monitor’s light gray lid and frame, as well as the dark gray keypad, are made from ABS; while a translucent blue hinge is made of an acrylic/ABS blend. Connolly, who says he closely follows design trends, decided to add the blue to achieve a contemporary, warm feel. Germany-based Roche Diagnostics, a company with which Lifestream has a licensing agreement, supplies the test module and cholesterol strips.

With the exception of the TPE keypad, which is manufactured in Asia, all parts are molded and assembled by Altek Inc. in Liberty, WA. The single-cavity tools are textured, producing pieces that essentially snap fit together, according to Connolly. With current annual production capacity for up to one-quarter million units, the company is staggering the product’s release into the market through selected catalogue retailers and the Home Shopping Network.

“All the big chain retail and drug store chains want this, but we want to make sure we have our production costs are low enough first,” says Connolly.


This is a broad, growing area that includes everything from home entertainment audio and visual equipment, to mobile entertainment to various types of game equipment.

One of markets predicted to see especially large future growth is in-vehicle entertainment systems. Alpine Electronics of America, Inc. has launched an expanded rear-sear entertainment system that allows consumers to customize in-vehicle entertainment. Options in the rear-seat system include up to two overhead monitors, two types of wireless headphones, tuners, consoles and a DVD changer.

Cybiko Inc.’s wireless Inter-Tainment Computer for the youth market combines instant messaging, e-mail and interactive gaming in one device. Dave Robak, vice president of new business development at Cybiko (Bloomingdale, IL) says the components of colorful hand-held units are made by a number of contract manufacturing partners. When choosing a supplier, Robak says Cybiko usually requires specific supplemental design services, ISO certification, as well as specific electronics testing capabilities.

The units’ translucent housing is injection molded from ABS. Focus-group studies done on the company’s targeted youth market helped determine the translucent colors. Additionally, the study found that youths preferred smooth, rather than textured surfaces. Robak says success in running the translucent, colored resin depends on proper mold treatment and process speed. Flow lines can form if the process speed is too fast.


Sales of consumer electronics accessories accounted for over $1.5 billion in 2000. These accessory items include antennae, remote changers, tripods, bags and cases, cables and a variety of other equipment.

One of the niftiest accessory items on display at the CES was Dacal Technology Corp.’s CD Library. The patented product has a round, white plastic base and a colored, translucent plastic lid designed with a window, through which CDs can be loaded or retrieved. Andy Chen, Dacal sales manager, says the CD Library can store up to 150 discs. The device can be linked to a computer to facilitate easy disc cataloging and management. When a command is entered, the CD-storage pedestal rotates to bring the requested CD to the window.

The CES’s huge scope is itself a testimony to ample opportunity for manufacturers. These products are developed and brought to market by a seemingly limitless variety of partnerships, capitalizing on synergies in design, technology and marketing. An apparent must for molders who wish to get a piece of the electronics action is a product-focused approach with full-service upstream and downstream capabilities.


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