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Letter from Schaumburg, IL: The 20th Annual Conference of the Thermoforming Division of SPE

From the turnout (close to 800 attendees, 74 exhibitors), the program and the activities, one would think that thermoforming is one of the major plastics processes, akin to extrusion and injection molding, rather than just a dependency of extrusion that makes the sheet they form. The Thermoforming Division of the SPE (Society of Plastics Engineers) has been running these meetings for 20 years now, and they have reached that critical status of "must attend" for many if not most in this field.

The exhibition alone was worth the trip, not just to see new things (in fact, there weren't many) but also to network with key firms and people and thus to nourish the businesses we are in. Like other SPE divisions, the thermoforming one publishes and gives awards, but unlike the others it does it in a separate event, not at ANTEC, and the feeling is all business (especially small business), less academic and more industrial.

Presentations covered materials for thermoform tooling and trimming as well as the actual forming, and were mainly directed at the formers, including a day of tutorials on roll-fed forming (led by Mark Strachan) and one on cut-sheet forming (led by Robert Browning). Peter Mooney's Monday keynote speech dealt with the economy and its long-term problems in a rational though frightening way - a long time brewing and no easy fix, even if we don't accept the too-easily-accepted assumption that only continual growth can save us.

The sessions were not recorded nor preprinted, which led to more spontaneous sessions - many of which were expert-panel discussions. If anyone wants to know more on their topics, they can contact the presenters (see link at http://thermoformingdivision.com/SPE-conference, click on Schedule). This use of panels might be a good example for some ANTEC sessions as well, to get more people into the meeting rooms to hear what isn't in the prepared versions.

The "buzz" among the attendees included the ascendance of PET over PVC, with the latter material not mourned by many, despite its ease of thermoforming and the science-blind attacks of its detractors. The PET-PP competition is still a live issue, however, with Dow's Terry Glass telling us that PP is environmentally just as good for thermoformed products, even with more PET recycled.

The newer bioplastics got some attention, but the general consensus remains that brand-owners and retailers may want a green image but the public won't pay more for it. That situation may change if and when we get widespread availability of biosourced conventional plastics at little or no premium, especially if they are NOT degradable and thus don't affect recycling streams. The anti-degradable folk are getting a further boost to their case because no degradation means no carbon dioxide released to the air, hence a smaller carbon footprint" It won't stop the brand-owners and retailers from pushing bioactive materials, but the costs will control what really happens.

There were at least five suppliers of sheet extrusion machinery present, especially promoting lines for PET. Local extruder-maker PTi told us about their dryerless twin-screw extrusion of PET, and then invited attendees to see it in action at their facility, where they ran a blend of virgin, forming trim and post-consumer recycle into clear 15-mil sheet at over 1000 lb/hr. The line includes a backflushing two-bolt screener, a cross-axis top roll, and a unique in-line melt viscosity sensor, as well as the now-common gear pump, static mixer and coex feed block. It works best when run fast, and with low melt temperatures.

A unique feature of this meeting was the scheduling over a weekend: tutorials and exhibit setup on Saturday, full days Sunday and Monday, and two tours of machine makers MAAC (formers) and PTi (extruders) on Tuesday. This may have upset the people who still sharply separate the workweek from the weekend, but this format has its champions and advantages, too, including the avoiding of Sunday night travel and the minimal absence from the factory during the production week.

The integration of show, meals and conference deserves special mention: breakfasts and lunches were catered in buffet style at one end of the exhibit hall, and many of the talks were given in this same venue, so people could sit at tables with notebooks and coffee, or even their meals, listen to speakers, and then just walk a few feet back into the exhibit area.

I can't conclude this report without mention of Bill McConnell, who served the thermoforming industry since before anyone remembers, who was a spark and fire of the division for almost as long, and who passed away at age 88 in June 2010. We would have celebrated his 90th birthday at this time this year, and it's a good time to celebrate his life, his personality and his contribution to our own lives and work.

About the author: Allan Griff is an independent engineering consultant, expert consultant in the plastics extrusion industry and host of our Extrusion Expert webinar series. Reach him via www.griffex.com.

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