Canadian Plastics

Future holds new market opportunities for plastics processors

By Tom Venetis, editor   



Global economic forces are expanding the areas where plastics will be used, and opening new markets for plastics processors -- that is, if they're able to successfully leverage their skills and expert...

Global economic forces are expanding the areas where plastics will be used, and opening new markets for plastics processors — that is, if they’re able to successfully leverage their skills and expertise.

Take for instance the automotive sector. For some time now, the major auto-makers in North America have been building vehicles using an increasing number of parts made from plastics and composite materials, especially for under-the-hood components and for adding aesthetic appeal. This trend will only accelerate in the coming years.

Looking Sharp on the Lot

Exterior car parts needs to be painted, both to add aesthetic appeal to the vehicle, and to protect the part from the effects of weather and UV radiation. However, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of plastic processors, requiring them to set up and maintain expensive painting stations, resulting in increased manufacturing costs.

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One of the most significant trends in the automotive parts industry is using in-mold, coloured plastic decoration solutions, to either reduce or even eliminate the need for painting. This means when an exterior plastic panel, roof module or fender is made, the colour is embedded right into material. So if that part is scratched or damaged in an accident, instead of the usual white plastic material peeking out from beneath the paint, the colour would be seamless.

For the plastics processor, in-mold solutions can save them from the cost of expensive painting stations, and consequently enable them to reduce the price of the part. As well, smaller plastics processors that were previously unable to enter into the automotive parts market because of the high cost of painting stations, can now use in-mold, coloured plastics solutions to offer automotive OEMs the same properties and features before realized only through painting.

Currently, there are a variety of resins that can produce parts with a ‘Class A’ colour and finish — that’s the really shiny and glossy look people love about new cars in the showroom — without any paint. These resins can be used in many in-mold decorations (IMD), or more commonly called film insert molding. IMD film insert molding involves inserting a coloured plastic film containing the protective layers into the mold. Then a substrate is molded behind the film to make the finished part allowing the film to easily adhere to the part’s surface.

Some of the common films currently available to plastics processors are based on polycarbonate (PC), polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and ionomers. Polycarbonate films tend to have good chemical- and scratch- resistance, and hold the coloured and glossy surface finish for some 10 years, even when exposed to adverse weather conditions. Ionomers are made from partially neutralized co-polymers of ethylene, and either acrylic or methacrylic acid. Ionomers give parts a high degree of durability, scratch-resistance, and they can weather most of what Mother Nature throws against them.

But manufacturing a part with a nice sheen, lasting colour and scratch-resistance is only one use for many of today’s newest plastics. Another gain for plastics in automotive is in weight — weight savings, that is.

Weight Gains

Keith DuPont, global market director, Under-The-Hood, for GE Advanced Materials, Automotive in Pittsfield, Mass., said today’s auto-makers are taking a page from their European counterparts and turning to plastics for reducing the weight of automobiles, and thereby improve fuel efficiency.

Recently, GE Advanced Materials and automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp., collaborated to develop GE Flexible Noryl resin. The material enables plastics processors to manufacture thin-walled wire and cable insulation that is 25 per cent lighter than wires and cables currently produced. Normally, automotive wiring has widths of 0.4 mm. Now that same wiring can be manufactured with widths of 0.2 mm.

Also, using GE Flexible Noryl doesn’t require plastics processors to invest in new, expensive extrusion machines.

“Generally speaking, if (plastics processors) have older wire extrusion equipment, they may need to increase the temperature capability of the heater bands and controllers,” DuPont said. “That is a pretty minimal expense and with newer extruders, (plastics processors) will not have an issue with this.”

Additionally, he said that many of today’s resins used to make lighter parts have the benefit of being more easily recyclable and less likely to release toxic dioxins during recycling.

Plastics processors should especially keep their eyes on innovations that are happening under-the-hood. Resin manufacturers are pushing the envelope by developing plastics that can withstand the stresses automobile engines place on their components during normal operations. At Fakuma 2005, a plastics trade show held in Freidrichshafen, Germany, in October, DuPont Engineering Polymers showcased a centrifugal filter from Pall Automotive Group made from DuPont’s Zytel HTN nylon resin. The filter is designed to remove and recover oil from blow-by gas in the crankcase of an automotive engine. The filter is able to withstand the heat, oil and carbon produced by a typical engine, and provides weight savings as well.

David McQueen, president of the Scarborough, Ont.-based Plextron Plastic Assembly Solutions, said plastics processors should also start paying more attention to ‘net shaping.’ This process involves molding a part that was previously made up of several separately molded components, in a single step, instead of each component separately and assembling them.

And as plastics processors begin to develop new ways to mold complex parts for under-the-hood automotive applications, McQueen said he sees the relationships between plastics processors and auto-makers changing.

Today, auto-makers rely on a wide-range of plastics processors to supply parts. In a short while, the big auto-makers will likely trim their supply chains, and reduce the number of plastics processors they source parts from. Instead, they will rely on a handful of highly skilled companies that have the expertise to mold complex and durable parts using high- performance resins. This means plastics processors will need to upgrade their technical and engineering skills, and more closely integrate themselves into the ‘just-in-time’ supply chains auto-makers will demand.

Flying Higher, Lighter

But plastics processors need not only keep their eyes fixed on the ground for new markets. There is a widening range of markets opening up in aerospace.

About 15 per cent of the structural weight of today’s commercial civilian aircraft are now made of plastic, especially carbon fibre-reinforced varieties. It is expected that in the next decade, that percentage could increase to almost half.

The appeal of plastics for the aerospace industry is not hard to fathom. According to a 2004 study put out by EADS Deutschland GmbH, parts made from plastic composites are up to 20 per cent lighter than those made from aluminum.

Plastics and composites are used extensively in the structure of the new Airbus A380, and Boeing’s upcoming 787 have as much as 50 per cent of its structure made from plastic composites. And Boeing is already working to make the fuselage of its new planes out of plastics composites.

Carlos Trindade, manager of research and development with Bombardier Aerospace in Montreal, Que., said Bombardier already uses plastic composites in its commercial aircraft, from thermoset to glass-reinforced thermoplastics.

“Our development at Bombardier concentrates on weight savings and performance improvements,” Trindade said. “We have achieved significant cost reductions as well (from plastics).”

Bombardier, along with all the major aircraft-makers, will in the future rely heavily on plastics processors to help find new places to use plastics in aircraft design, Trinda
de added. But not every plastics processor will be up to the challenge.

Success in the aerospace industry will not just depend on a plastics processor’s ability to mold parts, Trindade said. It will depend on the plastic processor’s ability develop a close working relationships with the aircraft-makers and demonstrating superior engineering and design skills.

“We don’t expect a plastics processor to have just a manufacturing role with us,” Trindade explained. “We expect them to have design, analysis and integration capabilities. We are going to rely on plastics processors to help us find new and effective (design) solutions. If we are buying parts from a composite manufacturer, we expect to be dealing with an expert who can give us feedback and tell us if there is a better way we can be doing things.”

Benny David, industry manager for composites in transportation and global marketing with GE Plastics in Pittsfield, Mass., said like the automotive industry, the aircraft-makers will likely focus on working with only a handful of plastic processors, those who can provide the necessary engineering and design support and can be closely integrated into the supply chain.

Going From Big to Small

Most plastic processors work on a large scale, or a least with large objects; objects that can be held in the hand, like a bottle or car part. But one of the most interesting markets to open up in the last few years is micromolding.

Scott Herbert, president for Pleasanton, Calif.-based RapidWerks Inc., said micromolding is being used extensively in electronics, especially in the push to make consumer electronics smaller and lighter. These include such things as compact digital cameras and USB drives. And there is also the growing market for micromolding in the medical market, making very tiny components used in medical devices.

However, plunging into the micromolding market will require plastics processors to make large capital and engineering investments in the process.

“Right now, biggest issues are there are not a lot of people who are positioned from an equipment standpoint and knowledge expertise standpoint to really address this market,” said Lynn Momrow, president of the Waterviliet, N.Y.-based Extreme Molding.

Extreme Molding is pushing the makers of micromolding machines to develop better micro-injection molding machines, and improve controls and mechanisms to allows for greater repeatability and accuracy, especially when making parts weighing less than one gram, she said.

However, plastics processors entering this market will have to develop very close working relationships with equipment suppliers and moldmakers to get the machines and molds they need, she noted.

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