Canadian Plastics

Research & Development: Minds at Work

Innovation is a nebulous thing. "You can't do much about it except pray," says Larry Prusak, a noted business management consultant and executive director, IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. "How...


April 1, 2002
By Cindy Macdonald, associate editor

Innovation is a nebulous thing. “You can’t do much about it except pray,” says Larry Prusak, a noted business management consultant and executive director, IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. “However, you can change the odds by creating an environment for innovation to occur.”

Some would argue, with merit, that Canada already has a good environment for innovation. We have a strong research and development sector with close ties to industry. And, the situation is poised to get better — the federal government announced in February a plan to double its current investments in R&D as part of its Innovation Strategy. (See www.innovationstrategy.gc.ca for details.)

But let’s not kid ourselves that R&D is synonymous with innovation. “Innovation is now recognized as being a much more complex process involving not only research, but also numerous feedback loops, entrepreneurs, support organizations, networks, good fortune with early customers and a lot of plain luck,” reports Peter Josty, chair, steering team for the Centre for Innovation Studies (Calgary, AB). The Centre is a not-for-profit organization which studies innovation dynamics, i.e., how ideas are transformed into commercial value.

What follows is a look at the ideas and changes brewing in labs across Canada.

CHAOS AND SYNERGY

“One way innovation occurs is when you force different groups to work together,” says Prusak. He describes a Japanese firm that had a “talk room” where researchers were expected to chat with each other, encouraging a “chaos theory of product development.”

At the one-year-old McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute, research into machining, metal forming, polymers and robotics have been merged under MMRI to encourage synergies. Soon, a new research discipline — micromanufacturing — will join these three. MMRI is housed at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, and administered by professors from various engineering departments.

“These disciplines were brought together to be able to tackle larger-scope R&D projects,” explains Andrew Hrymak, acting director of MMRI and chair of McMaster’s Department of Chemical Engineering. “For example, as we studied optimization of mold cooling circuits, a student with a machining background was able to contribute knowledge about the practical constraints of machining cooling channels.”

One current area of exploration at MMRI is rotational molding. More specifically, the research emphasis is on micropelletizing of resins. The micropellets may also have application in micromanufacturing, because micro-scale parts may benefit from raw materials that are delivered in smaller particles than current standards.

MMRI’s polymers lab is equipped with a bi-axial rotational molding machine and an underwater pelletizer on loan from Gala Industries that is capable of micropelletizing. The micropelletized resin has the texture of table salt, with particles in the range of 400 to 500 microns.

While micropelletizing is proven for polyethylene, the MMRI researchers are exploring its potential for other resins.

Michael Thompson, an assistant professor with the McMaster Department of Chemical Engineering, notes that single-component foams are another very hot topic. He says there’s a desire for medium density foams to replace sandwich-composite materials, and interest in alternatives to micro-cellular foaming technology. Thompson has a personal interest in nanocomposite materials, which is echoed by the Canadian plastics industry. He says a lot of companies want to get involved in nanocomposites, often to improve electrostatic discharge properties or to facilitate manufacturing on a micro scale.

Powder metal injection molding, polymer blends and die design are other projects in the works at MMRI.

MMRI’s polymer lab is equipped with a 55-ton Arburg injection molding machine that has a number of special features. It has two injection units to permit multi-component molding, sandwich molding or even two- component powder injection molding. A Davis-Standard Thermatic two-inch extruder has the option of both a grooved feed screw and a barrier screw. It is used for micropelletizing and extrusion of foamed profiles. A smaller extruder has been used in projects exploring reprocessing and recycling. The lab has a polymer mixer and a lab-scale blending line.

In addition, housed in the taller machining lab across the hall is a Davis-Standard lab-scale blown film extruder.

MARKET FOCUS DRIVES POLYMER RESEARCH

Much polymer-related research is also going on at DuPont Canada’s Research and Development Centre in Kingston, ON. This facility responsible for DuPont’s Zytel HTN high temperature nylon and for Caltrel high- temperature resin for heat exchangers.

“Almost all of our work is polymer-related,” explains Mahender Khurana, manager of research and business development, DuPont Canada, engineering polymers. “We normally do work related to solving a market need.” Research of a more fundamental nature is conducted at DuPont’s Wilmington, DE plant.

The Kingston facility has a staff of over 200, and has been in operation for about 35 years.

It was instrumental in the recent development of Caltrel fluid energy transfer systems. Essentially, Caltrel is an all-plastic heat exchanger. A global program to replace metal in heat exchangers led to the development of the Caltrel nylon, which effectively transfers energy in fluids. An all-plastic heat exchanger permits weight savings and design freedom compared with metals.

Fuel cell research is also on-going at DuPont’s Kingston facility. This research got a boost in February from the federal government’s Technology Partnerships Canada program. TPC will invest $19 million in DuPont’s fuel cell research.

DuPont Canada’s fuel cell research has two areas of focus: The development of conductive flowfield plates as key components of fuel cells, and the design of unitized cells as the building blocks for stacks in Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) based fuel cell applications. DuPont Canada’s flowfield plate program will develop novel materials, technologies and processes for the production of conductive plates for use in PEM fuel cells. Delivery of the first commercial prototype plates to the industrial marketplace is anticipated by the third quarter of 2002.

MORE CHANGES AFOOT

The Alberta Research Council has helped an Alberta plastics recycler add value to its business by adopting a unique production technology. The technology allows Amity Plastics to use its recycled plastic to produce highway guardrail posts. The process involves a thermal/pressing technique, a reinforcing system and a baking process. Plastic posts produced by this process last longer than wooden posts because they aren’t susceptible to fungal rot. The technology developed by ARC was available for commercialization when Amity approached the organization, so staff at Amity and ARC collaborated to make the process operational.

In Quebec, the Centre de Recherche Industrielle du Quebec (CRIQ) is conducting applied robotics research relevant to plastics manufacturing. CRIQ has developed a machine to assemble deodorant holders for Gillette Canada Inc. The machine assembles three different components at a rate of 120 units per minute. The Institute has also designed an automated machine to assemble Venetian blinds and an automated cell to assemble plastic vanes inside dryers.

cole Polytechnique de Montreal and Univrsit de Montral both support CRASP (which translates as the Center for Applied Polymer Research). Much of the research at CRASP is oriented toward new materials, especially composites, biomedical polymers, polymer blends and thermoset materials. CRASP has developed “intelligent” composites which contain fibres with shape memory.

The Centre also developed a simulation/modelling program for resin transfer molding. The program was commercialized by a private firm founded by two professors and then sold to ESI Group, a supplier of virtual prototyping software.

BRIDGING THE FUNDING GAP

In Ontario,
Materials and Manufacturing Ontario (MMO) effectively bridges the gap between the needs of industry and the needs of universities. It is a not-for-profit corporation supported by the Ontario government and industrial contributions with a mandate to “contribute to innovation through the funding of university research, through partnership, cooperation and collaboration with Ontario universities and industry.”

For the fiscal year which ended in March 2001, MMO’s research expenditures for plastics and polymers totalled $1.2 million. Supported projects included: materials and process for polyurethane curing (Carelton University); EVA/metallocene PE blends (Queen’s University); microcellular foaming of wood-fibre composites (University of Toronto); ultrasonic inspection of plastic fuel tanks (University of Windsor).

Overall, Canada’s research funding is still lagging behind that of some other industrial nations, says Andrew Hrymak, acting director of MMRI. “We’re lacking the funding to sustain larger research groups and facilities. Germany, Japan, England — these countries have large grants to support the critical mass needed for effective research.”

But Michael Thompson, having worked in the United States before joining MMRI, says Canada is deemed by American firms to be a country that is strong in research. He feels the Canadian system allows for more fundamental (not product-driven) research, and counters that the federal and provincial governments have been funding research infrastructure projects over the last few years.