Canadian Plastics

Resin suppliers, distributors and masterbatch providers reaching out with Web-based services, laboratory support for plastics processors

By Tom Venetis, editor   



n the past, services and support for plastics processors seemed geared only to the biggest players, making smaller ones feel left out....

n the past, services and support for plastics processors seemed geared only to the biggest players, making smaller ones feel left out.

Fortunately, the tide is changing.

After investing heavily in the Web, on-site support teams and testing and laboratory services, suppliers and distributors of resins and makers of masterbatches now offer plastics processors a myriad of ways to continually improve the quality of their products, and speed up the time it takes to get them on the market.

ACCESSING THE DESIGN, TECHNICAL CENTRES

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Whether a plastics processor buys resin and masterbatches by the rail car load or just a 10-lb bag, suppliers of materials and masterbatches are now more committed to providing services to both small and large customers.

Yet other suppliers admit that not every plastics processor will be able to take advantage of the kinds of advanced technical or laboratory testing services and programs materials suppliers have to offer. Some say the decision to offer laboratory testing services is dependent on several factors including the size of the project, the amount engineering and work required for that project, and what the return on investment (ROI) is for the supplier.

GETTING HELP

But that does not mean smaller plastics processors should despair, thinking they have been left out in the cold. Projects are evaulated on a case-to-case basis; they are not denied services simply because of the size of their company.

Dave Gervasio, general manager for the supply chain of the Americas with GE Plastics in Huntersville, S.C. said GE Plastics, like all the material suppliers, considers small customers just as important as large ones. GE Polymerland, a distribution arm of GE Plastics, no longer exists. All business is now conducted through GE Plastics.

GE Plastics will not turn a plastics processor away because they are small and purchase less than truckloads of resin, he said. Instead, GE Plastics will find other companies that work with GE Plastics to help the plastics processor get the support and technical services they need.

“We will make recommendations to outside computer engineering groups that would jump all over the work offered by these (smaller) customers,” Gervasio said.

OEM SPECS JUST A CLICK AWAY

Today’s support strategies from materials suppliers are centered on the Internet. The advantages of the Web for plastics processors are obvious. The Web offers a central and easily accessible place for getting technical and support literature. The Web treats every plastics processor the same. Technical information about resins, additives and masterbatches can now be easily found with the click of a mouse.

Additionally, nearly all materials suppliers and distributors provide specifications online for materials used to produce parts for various OEMs. The specifications for a manufacturer of automobiles, for example, would list the particular resins, colourants and additives required used for manufacturing components like bumper fascias and door panels.

For example, Dupont has specific Web site for plastics processors working in the automotive sector, which includes an array of specifications from automotive OEMs for the components where Dupont materials are used.

The Web site also provides support and technical information for the firm’s engineered plastics used for manufacturing such automotive parts as windshield wipers, lighting components and front-end components. Additional support and technical material from Dupont can be found at www.plastics.dupont.com.

Dupont also provides regular injection molding design conferences for plastics processors, engineers and designers that covers everything from the fundamentals of plastics to part design and testing.

BASF’s Engineering Plastics business in North America recently upgraded its online Snap-Fit Design Calculator on its PlasticsPortal Web site. The Snap-Fit Design Calculator is made to provide designers with accurate calculations when making snap-fit components.

KEEPING KNOWLEDGE FRESH

By moving all of that technical material online, it is now easier for plastics processors to keep up with the ever-changing technical and materials information that once had to be stored in stacks of three-ring binders.

As well, because materials suppliers are continually updating their Web sites, plastics processors know that’s where they can find the leading edge information.

Andrew Spicer, senior account manager with Channel Prime Alliance in Oakville, Ont., said his company’s Web site (www.channelpa.com) is where customers can go to get the most up-to-date information on the company’s products, including technical sheets and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

BEYOND THE WEB

Support and technical services do not stop at the Web. Resin manufacturers and distributors and masterbatch providers have also invested developed a wide range of testing and engineering programs processors can take advantage of.

One of the most critical issues facing any plastics processor is choosing the right material, whether that material is a resin, an additive, a colourant or a masterbatch. Any mistake, even a minor one, can have serious consequences in the quality of the part, said Morgan Gibbs, director of technical services and development with Ampacet Corp., a supplier of masterbatches based in Tarrytown, N.Y. Ampacet’s Canadian facility is located in Kitchener, Ont.

For example, adding a wrong stabilizer to a masterbatch for manufacturing plastic bags could result in a low-quality product. The bags could break down when exposed to air, or split open when filled with groceries at the shopping market. The wrong stabilizer could also affect how easily those plastic bags open, leaving a frustrated checkout clerk fumbling while a customer looks on impatiently.

That’s why Ampacet encourages its customers, regardless of the quantity of materials purchased, to involve Ampacet in the early stages of a project, Gibbs explained.

GETTING ON-SITE

Ampacet’s Canadian technical experts will respond to inquiries about the company’s materials within 24 hours. And Ampacet employs technical experts who conduct house calls. Not only will they visit a processor’s facility, but they will evaluate the processor’s manufacturing process to figure out what went wrong and what can be done to fix it. These house calls form a critical aspect of Ampacet’s support services, Gibbs noted.

“The kinds of process issues our customers deal with usually come down to how one is running the material,” Gibbs added. “Or it could be that something is not going right with the machinery. We are savvy enough to be able to spot whether the problem is a processing issue or a (materials) issue.”

Brian Winicki, sales director of corporate accounts-automotive with Ashland Distribution, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ashland Inc., in Dublin, Ohio, said Ashland has technical experts in Canada whose jobs are to visit customers when necessary. Plastics processors can request a visit by a technical expert by contacting their Ashland Distribution’s sales representatives. The sales representatives, who have extensive materials and design expertise, will decide whether the situation requires a housecall.

Like Ampacet, Ashland’s technical experts will sit down with customers to solve problems or help discover glitches in the production process.

“The approach we took with our technical services was that we did not want to create something that our suppliers already have in place,” Winicki said. “Many of our suppliers have large infrastructures and have (testing) labs. But our customers were asking from us for more hands-on, in-the-plant support. That is us working with their engineers and working with their processing people.”

PUTTING IT TO THE TEST

Yvon Garneau, sales and marketing manager with Clariant Canada Masterbatches Division in Toronto, said masterbatch suppliers can play an important role helping plastics processors get products to market faster by going beyond just supplying the right masterbatch.

Clariant’s ColorWorks Centers can help processors resolve both design and material issues. At the ColorWorks Centers customers can access engineering and testing support needed to choose the right materials, as well as catch product design and tooling issues before the part is manufactured.

Catching flaws in tool design or problems with a mold early on is critical because it can cut down on the costs associated with processing a bad part.

For example, a processor would be better off discovering its masterbatch is not flowing correctly because of an incompatible colourant or additive early in the project. Running computer-based simulations, for example, can help find problems before a mold has been cut or a masterbatch has been ordered.

“ColorWorks is made to be used prior to developing the product or when you are starting to develop the product,” Garneau said. “What our (ColorWorks) facilities offer is if a company has a specific (product) idea or a drawing or a product, we can help them with everything from resin selection, mold flow analysis, stress analysis and even gating analysis.”

But Garneau said ColorWorks is not there to promote one company’s material over another’s, but to help Clariant’s customers select the right materials as well as provide them with the best engineering and testing services to get a product out to market quickly.

“The idea (with ColorWorks) is speed to market,” Garneau said. “It is being able to get the product out faster by reducing the guesswork involved. You try to cover all aspects involved in a product design and manufacture. The faster you get your product out of the gate, the better chance it has of succeeding.”

“Customers are asking for more support in mold flow analysis,” said Kurt Stahle, automotive manager with A. Schulman Canada Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. “We have the capability of doing that internally or outsourcing it depending on our workload. We have tooling review meetings where we can find ways to tweak the tool and figure out ways to best use it. (Customers) like to sit down with us even before a prototype is cut so we have these review meetings before is tool is ordered.”

PolyOne Distribution Canada’s Design Center has experienced engineers and specialists on-hand to help with part design using solid modeling CAD/CAE computer systems. Customers can also test parts for thermal and structural load, as well as conduct mold flow analysis and warpage tests.

PolyOne Distribution Canada also runs polymer identification, thermal analysis and chemical analysis tests through Polymer Diagnostics Inc. in Avon Lake, Ohio.

“The (Design Center) is a huge selling tool,” said Frank Tomaselli, commercial director for PolyOne Distribution Canada in Mississauga, Ont. “We are seeing a lot of people taking advantage of these new programs, whether they are in the automotive market or even the furniture market. These kinds of services help customers build the right tools from the ground up and then help them select the right material.”

Entec Polymers also offers technical and design services. The firm’s approach involves providing customers with access to plastic engineers who are capable of assisting during each phase of a project, from product development and part design to material selection, mold design, processing adjustment and failure analysis.

During product development Entec consultants work directly with the customer’s product design and engineering group, said Paul Durand, account manager with the Nashua, N.H.-based Entec. The engineers are experienced with injection molding processes, product design cycles and CAE tools.

“We will get involved in the front-end, in the very early design stages of a part design,” Durand added. “If someone is designing a new bumper system for Ford, or if someone is designing a new housing for a computer, they will engage us early in that process.”

In the end, all resin suppliers see these support services as a means of strengthening the long-term business relationship with their customers. They encourage plastics processors to contact their material supplier or masterbatch sales person to inquire about the services and programs.

By strengthening those relationships, material suppliers become a critical part of a plastics processor business and for success.

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