Single-source material specs present big problems

I learned about the material spec-ing game back in the 1980s when I was working in sales and marketing for a custom molding and moldmaking company. Since I was the first to see all of the RFQs that came in, I began to note that nearly every RFQ we received had parts spec’d in one major producer’s polycarbonate. I was truly amazed that so many applications seemed appropriate for this particular PC.

I actually began calling the engineers who were sending these RFQs and asking them why they needed their parts in PC. I thought maybe it was because of some engineering properties (which PC certainly has and it was a common material for many computer applications in the 1980s when molders were molding computer components by the millions). No, no reason I was told. It was just a new type of PC and besides, the sales person from the resin producer had just been in to see them to promote the benefits of this new PC.

I later discovered from a sales person that sold for this resin producer that it was a marketing model: hit all the OEMs—especially those in the booming personal computer industry—and get them to spec this particular brand of PC on all their prints. Wow! What a great sales tactic! It certainly put this material on the map. And I began to see it with other materials such as ABS and PC-ABS from other resin producers.

And it worked. For those of you who’ve been around for the last 30 years, you probably know the resin producer of which I’m speaking. And consequently, there were probably thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of components spec’d in this particular PC.

That’s all well and good for a while. But what happens when there’s a shortage of that particular material, like what we’re experiencing now with PA-12? Industries, particularly automotive, are scrambling to identify how bad the problem is, find alternative materials, and then test, evaluate and approve these alternative materials—FAST! That’s easier said than done.

Why are these big automotive OEMs and their suppliers just now looking at alternative materials? Why aren’t there alternative materials waiting in the wings for those “just-in-case” events? After all, automotive OEMs have had their fair share of supply chain disruptions over the past year: the Japanese tsunami, flooding, and other catastrophic events have shut down lines and delayed product.

Spec’ing one material for critical components is leaving these OEMs wide open to supply fluctuations and disruptions. And testing, evaluating and approving a substitution can take a long time. “Definitely,” concurred Rhodia Engineering Plastics’ Alan Dubin, whose company is positioning one of its materials as a stand-in/replacement, and who attended a recent Automotive Industry Action Group meeting on the PA12 shortage. “It could take six months to a year to validate some of these materials, but in the wake of that conference, the emphasis is on accelerating the process for alternate materials by facilitating their rapid approval, either on their own or through their Tier 1 suppliers. Given that it’s a crisis situation the process will be a lot faster.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that spec activity contributes to this problem of a lack of alternative materials. OEMs spend a tremendous amount of time and money getting certain grades and brands approved. Dubin said that he runs into these problems when an OEM’s approach has been to write part specifications entirely around the performance of one material. When something happens in the supply chain, the specs have to be adjusted or re-written to accommodate an alternative material. “Resin suppliers might have a close drop-in but still the specs have to be adjusted,” he noted.

And it’s not just in the automotive industry. The medical industry was hit a few years ago when a resin supplier decided to quit making a certain resin, and there was nothing to take its place. And we all know how long it takes to validate anything in the medical industry. The process by collusion has become long and unwieldy, but this crisis just might change all that.
In their unending quest to secure their supply chain, OEMs might want to add one more line item: establish criteria for several materials so that when something happens, an alternative material is waiting in the wings. It just might save your bacon the next time there’s a disruption. And it’s almost certain there will be a next time.

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