Market Focus: Computers and business equipment

September 28, 1998

HIPS and ABS crowd the top of the computer and business equipment list, as usual, with PC a distant third. Lurking in the shadows is PC/ABS, an attractive alternative to flame-retardant ABS, which is a no-no for many eco-labels. The Plastic Buyer Profiles database, a department of Phillip Townsend & Assoc. Inc. (Houston), provides the data for this monthly column on end-use markets.

Every molder knows that metal replacement represents one of the biggest processing opportunities. But you don't hear much about metal replacing plastic. That, however, is the case for some products in the computer and business equipment market, says Steve Helm, industry manager for the business machine segment at Bayer. But don't fret yet. The market is not evolving away from injection molding. In fact, Helm estimates that growth for this market should be 17 to 19 percent in the coming year-a healthy trend by any standard.

Helm says he's seeing metal replacement in some computer case applications in which faster, hotter CPUs are forcing manufacturers to use metal cases to cope with the warmth. Computer monitors, he notes, are getting so large that metal frames are required for internal components, with everything still enclosed in a plastic case. Metal also provides a natural EMI/RFI shield for components inside. While this may not be good news to many molders, some are looking at the glass as half full.

Helm says he's seeing several customers serving this market aligning themselves with metal manufacturers and fabricators in a partnership or equity arrangement, essentially becoming contract manufacturers. "The molders are bringing a complete package to the OEMs," Helm notes. "Many OEMs are basically trying to transfer their overhead externally." Smart molders, he says, are cashing in by providing everything the OEM needs in one place-via partnerships. Such services include design, prototyping, tooling, molding, assembly, and metal fabrication.

There's still opportunity for metal replacement in other applications in this market. Helm says the laser printer chassis is the candidate of the moment. These predominantly metal parts are being converted and consolidated, saving manufacturers material and assembly costs.

Beyond the U.S. borders, Helm sees more and more molders taking advantage of NAFTA by opening plants in Mexico in general, and Guadalajara and Monterey in particular. He says he's also noticed expansion in Ireland, Singapore, and China-the "new battleground."

Although they're not applicable in the U.S., Helm says European eco-labels are earning more attention from global OEMs. Eco-labels, like Blue Angel in Germany, are voluntary labels manufacturers earn indicating that their products are made with materials that are "environmentally friendly" and can be recycled. From the molder's perspective, rightly or wrongly, it means limiting the use of resins with halogenated fire retardants. That means no fire-retardant ABS for many applications, long a favorite of computer and business equipment molders. "If certification is desired, designers are looking at eco-labels now, moving away from products that contain bromine or chlorine," Helm says.

What molders can use, and still comply with most eco-labels, is fire-retardant PC/ABS. Many molders are also finding PC/ABS easier to process and better flowing than straight ABS-something that comes in handy especially in thin-wall applications. Look for resin suppliers to introduce in the coming year new compounds of PC/ABS that flow better, process more easily, and offer a variety of fillers and reinforcements.

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