Plastics-metal innovation has promising future


Materials joining technology company TWI has developed a surface treatment technique and joining process that produces high-performance joints between plastics and metals. Early tests show that specimens of steel bonded to a glass fiber-reinforced thermoset polyester (FRP) composite made using the Comeld process exhibit failure in a consistent and predictable manner in the metal part of the sample rather than at the joint or in the composite.

FRPs offer high strength-to-weight ratios, but often must be joined to other materials, usually metals, the Cambridge, England-based TWI says. But composite-to-metal joints present significant design challenges to achieve high levels of mechanical performance. "Designers have been reticent to design structures incorporating joints, or have adopted highly conservative designs that increase weight and negate some of the benefits of using composite materials," notes TWI.

At the heart of Comeld is a metal surface pretreatment called Surfi-Sculpt, patented by TWI. A powered beam (early work is with an electron beam) produces what Comeld senior project leader Faye Smith calls ''proggles'' ("it started as a joke but the name stuck") small teeth that key onto the composite part when it is formed around the metal part (see photo). The resulting joint fails at a much higher load and absorbs far more energy before failure than a conventional joint of the same dimensions.

Surfi-Sculpt is a high-speed and highly controllable process. The sample in the photo, 25 by 35 mm, was treated in around eight seconds. The distance between the teeth can be controlled, as can the height of individual teeth, Smith says. E-beam equipment is expensive, but Smith says she knows of several firms interested in doing contract work.

Comeld can be used with a wide range of thermoplastics and thermosets , and in a range of processes. Thermosets can be molded around the metal or they can be preformed and then adhesively bonded. Composites with thermoplastics can be produced by insert injection molding.

TWI is launching a two-year project to investigate the application of Comeld with a variety of material combinations. "We are looking for industry to come and cooperate with us in this project from the very early stage," says Smith. "We have already had huge amounts of interest following presentations in the U.K. and Japan."

In Brief

Demand, costs are fine; margins stink

Polyolefins producer Borealis (Kongens Lyngby, Denmark) says that despite 2003 results showing stronger demand and lower operating costs, the full year proved a disappointment. John Talyor, Borealis'' chief executive, says the war in Iraq, the SARS outbreak, excess global polyolefin capacity, high feedstock prices, and generally weak European economies caused "the lowest industry margins in a decade."

Spartech buys BASF''s PS specialties

The flame retardant and antistatic polystyrene compounds business of BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany) has been sold for an undisclosed price to Spartech (Clayton, MO). BASF is closing PS compound production in Ludwigshafen and transferring it to Spartech''s plant in Donchery, France.

SPI plans China trip

In the face of a widening trade chasm with China, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI; Washington, DC), in conjunction with U.S. Dept. of Commerce, has announced plans for a trade mission to China that will include visits with processors in Guangzhou and Shanghai and admission to ChinaPlas 2004 in late June.

Attendees will have the opportunity to visit Chinese government agencies, industry associations, processors, and plastics training facilities. Matchmaking conferences will be used to pair attendees with appropriate Chinese counterparts. Costs, which include hotel, receptions, interpreters, and air and ground transportation, are $6500 for SPI members and $9500 for non-members. The application deadline is June 4 for the June 21 to July 1 trade mission.

Steel company gets in on hybrid molding

Anglo-Dutch steel company Corus has developed a process for injection molding thermoplastics onto steel sheet that is cut to shape and formed in the mold itself. It says Polymer Injection Forming (PIF), which it will license, "is expected to lead to a new era of innovative consumer and other products." Potential applications include mobile phones, consumer electronics, light switches, IT equipment, kitchen appliances, cutlery, automotive components, and garden furniture. It says several international consumer product manufacturers have already expressed interest in the process.

In addition to yielding parts that have the strength of metal and the form freedom of plastic, PIF can also provide electromagnetic shielding. "The polymer can protect the steel''s sharp edges and is strong enough to be used as a hinge, spring, slide, or lock," Corus adds.

The level of adhesion can be fully controlled during the production process, even locally. This feature can be used to make springs, locks, and other moving parts in one production process, eliminating the need for costly collapsible cores in the mold.

German chancellor rips offshoring

German government officials and business reps are sparring over who gets the most blame for the growing number of jobs, many in plastics processing, being exported to developing countries. In an interview with the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German chancellor Gerhard Schroder condemned the transfer of jobs to cheaper offshore locations as "unpatriotic." This followed an interview with the leader of the chamber of commerce and industry (DIHK), who advised German companies to "use the opportunities offered by the eastward enlargement of the European Union," rather than "wait for better policies at home."

The comments from Ludwig Gerog Braun, president of the DIHK, are among those of business leaders who have criticized recent government measures including ecological energy taxes, penalties for employers not training enough apprentices, and the country''s high wage and tax structure.

Klaus Probst, chairman of automotive supplier Leoni (Nuremberg), says it will be "difficult to maintain [many] jobs in Germany." The processor of wiring and automotive harness systems has already abandoned automotive cable production in Brake, Germany and transferred this to Poland and Hungary "for logistical and cost reasons." Last year, Leoni moved mobile telecom cable production to China. Only 13% of Leoni''s workforce remains employed within Germany.

SPE boss: Bankruptcy talk is off the mark

Though there may be disagreement in the ranks, Donna Davis, president of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), says the group''s finances are in better shape now than for some years.

In an interview at an SPE thermoforming conference in Italy in March, she said, "We''ve made significant progress strengthening the financial position of the SPE . . . For the first time in many years we will have retained earnings [of $200,000] for 2003." Money will be used to support the group''s new product development, particularly projects to boost membership, she says.

A newsletter e-mailed by the group''s PVC division in late 2003 cited cost-cutting moves as necessary to prevent bankruptcy of the SPE; newsletters from other divisions have also highlighted the extremely poor financial position.

Questioned about the bankruptcy reference, Davis explains, "We are an association of members, and in that sense every member can speak his mind," but says in fact the situation was never so dire.

However, she says that SPE did not return rebates to its divisions early this year, as it often has in the past. For some of the smaller SPE divisions such as the rotational molding one, which had planned on nearly 25% of its income for the 2003-2004 budget coming from the rebate, this decision could prove detrimental.

SPE membership has remained flat in North America but is growing elsewhere, says Davis. In a February report to members, Susan Oderwald, SPE deputy executive director, wrote, "The largest opportunity for SPE growth is overseas. If SPE chooses not to fill its international mandate, it must then choose to become a smaller and a more niche service organization." Davis says the group fully intends to pursue international growth.

Giant die-head set to produce 2m-diameter pipe

Processor Pipelife (Surnadal, Norway) has ordered a 2000- mm diameter pipe die to produce high-density polyethylene pipe, an increase of 400 mm in diameter from its largest existing size. Pipes will be extruded directly into the sea (November 2002 MP, p. 39; MPI p. 47) for easy transport. The 50-tonne die, built by Reifenhauser (Troisdorf, Germany), should allow Pipelife to penetrate into pipe dimensions which previously were confined to steel or concrete. The extrusion line consists of a single-screw extruder with a screw diameter of 150 mm and an L/D ratio of 33:1.

Arburg tech event pulls them in–again

German injection molding machine maker Arburg attracted over 3400 visitors (1200 from outside the country) to its three-day open house in Lossburg in late March, more than ever before. Some 16,000 customers have been to the annual event since it started in 1999. There were more than 40 machine exhibits, with an emphasis on modular drives. Arburg is planning to hold a multicomponent molding event in June.

Structured competition

Steadily encroaching on metal and other materials in more and more challenging applications, plastics used in products as diverse as tractor hoods and running boards were showcased in the Society of the Plastics Industry''s (SPI; Washington, DC) Structural Plastics Awards (March 21-23, Charlotte, NC). Bemis Mfg. (Sheboygan Falls, WI) took home three awards for a John Deere tractor enclosure, tractor top hood, and front-end for an off-road Gator vehicle.

Top honors, however, went to a cowl for a four-stroke outboard boat engine entered by Mercury Marine (Fond Du Lac, WI) and molded by Bemis, which won the Conference and People''s Choice awards. The 11.3-lb (5.13-kg) engine cover is said to be the largest injection molded nylon part ever produced. Replacing an SMC cowl, the nylon component was scoop shaped and measured 851 by 582 mm, with a depth of 417 mm. It weighed 3 lb (20%) less than its predecessor and was reinforced by 33% glass.

All told, the competition featured 62 parts, 36 of which were injection molded, along with RIM, blowmolded, rotomolded, and extruded entries. Gas-assist was used in 10 parts, and direct long-fiber compounding was applied in several, including a running board for the Ford F-250/-350 trucks, molded by Composite Products Inc. (Winona, MN). Using long-fiber technology, the PP part started as an extruded log with glass strands providing reinforcement. It was then transfer molded into one part that ultimately combined 43 components into one and reduced overall weight by 30 lb.

Group starts blow- molding JV in China

A group of six German engineers has joined forces in Hong Kong to form Dekuma Ltd., a joint venture with local injection machine supplier Welltech Machinery Ltd. Under the agreement, Dekuma will manufacture extrusion blowmolding machines and polyolefin pipe extrusion lines in China. Technical Chief Consultant Karl-Heinz Roesing says, "Dekuma operates two subsidiaries; BMPR GbR in Bonn, Germany, which specializes in design and consultancy services for plastics processing machinery, and manufacturing arm Dekuma-Welltech Machinery Ltd., located at Welltech''s plant site in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. BMPR will furnish Dekuma-Welltech with overall design know-how, while the latter will handle detailed machine design and production. "

The first blowmolding machine, a 10-tonne unit, is due off the production line mid-year, and the production target is 35 machines by year-end. A 3-tonne blow-molding machine should be on show at K 2004, and production of a 20-tonne machine is also planned. Initially, machines will be sold in China.

Clariant initiates Asian masterbatch investment effort

The investment spotlight for Clariant''s masterbatches business is firmly on Asia this year, with half of the $35 million in capital investment planned for 2004 allocated to the region. "In all, 11 new masterbatch lines will be added in the Asia-Pacific region this year," says Gary Fielding, Asia-Pacific director at Clariant Masterbatches (Thailand) Ltd., which is the business unit''s regional headquarters. This will take the regional line count up to about 110.

The firm plans to triple capacity at its Shanghai compounding facility from 2000 to 6000 tonnes/yr by relocating to a new site. Two more lines will also be added in Malaysia, and capacity will be added in Taiwan and South Korea. A new technical center will open near Melbourne, Australia, while the continent''s three lab sites will be upgraded. The Singapore facility also is in line for a factory upgrade.

This follows significant investment in 2003, which also saw 11 lines added. Lines and a new color center were added in Singapore, and the lab was upgraded. Malaysian capacity was doubled in 2003, partly through transfer of existing lines from Thailand, while a new line was also installed in Indonesia.

Clariant established a new facility in Beijing in January. It also opened a masterbatch facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in December 2003.

Maguire establishes subsidiary in Asia

Maguire Products, Inc. (Aston, PA) has formed its first wholly owned Asian subsidiary in Singapore. A second facility in Shanghai will open shortly. It expects sales in Asia to quintuple in just two or three years. The new companies will provide sales service, technical support, and warehousing for a range of materials handling auxiliary equipment.

Maguire Products Asia replaces an entity operated by an agent and will be a larger and more comprehensive operation, according to Hubert Nerlich, managing director of Maguire Asia. "We will triple our sales force in China alone," Nerlich says, "and dramatically cut lead times for customers by maintaining extensive inventories of machinery and parts in both Singapore and Shanghai. In addition, each location will include facilities for demonstrations of equipment, trial runs of customers'' materials, and training of customer personnel."

The current staff at the new 500-sq-m (5380-sq-ft) Singapore headquarters of Maguire Asia consists of six sales and technical experts. Four similarly qualified people will operate the Shanghai facility when it opens, with another four to six to be added there in the coming year.

Asian lab equipment maker plans major expansion

Thai laboratory extrusion line manufacturer Labtech Engineering (Bangkok) plans to double production capacity by 2005 due to increased demand from global customers that include Clariant, Ampacet, and A. Schulman.

The supplier currently manufactures 20 test lines per month, including single-screw compounders, single- and multilayer film blowing lines, lab-scale high-speed mixers, single and multilayer chill roll casting lines, and bottle blowing machines. At the recent T-Plas show in Bangkok, Labtech unveiled its first laboratory twin-screw extruder.

"Around 80% of production finds its way to Europe," says company president Peter Jurgensen. He adds, "We are negotiating with some big names in extrusion who want to outsource production of their lab equipment." Labtech also wants to move into rheological testing equipment.

Restructuring at SMS plastics machinery

German engineering company SMS is planning a "radical restructuring" of its plastics machinery division, which includes extrusion and injection molding brand names Battenfeld, Battenfeld Gloucester, American Maplan, Cincinnati Extrusion, and SMS Folientechnik.

Announcing the move during a late March press conference in Dusseldorf, SMS chairman Heinrich Weiss also said his family late last year acquired a controlling stake in SMS, buying out the shares owned by German conglomerate MAN. In comments reported by U.K. trade magazine Plastics & Rubber Weekly, Weiss also said the firm had cancelled discussions for a merger between the SMS plastics machinery division and Mannesmann Plastics Machinery (MPM, Munich). Such a merger—effectively an acquisition by MPM—would have been huge; MPM includes Berstorff, Billion, Demag Plastics Machinery, Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik and Netstal.

The SMS spokesman in Dusseldorf refused to field questions about the restructuring and on the canceled sale. In 1999 SMS tried to sell its Battenfeld injection machinery business to Madison Capital Partners, Chicago, IL, but that deal also was not completed.

Plastics machinery accounted for €438 million of SMS''s €1.933 billion in 2003 orders. SMS derives most of its sales from machinery for metallurgy and rolling mills for metal processing, but the plastics division performed poorly enough to be singled out numerous times by Weiss. Losses last year of €19 million were blamed entirely on the plastics machinery division due to its "exceptionally poor performance" as a result of "serious management shortcoming." Helmut Eschwey, the plastics division''s previous chief, left the firm last summer to take charge of Heraeus, the world''s second-largest supplier of industrial precious metals.

Early this year, the firm announced that former Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik CEO Wilhelm Schroder had arrived to run SMS''s plastics machinery division. It''s a small world; Eschwey replaced Horst Heidsieck, who became CEO of Demag Holding, Luxembourg, a seven-firm group that includes Mannesmann Plastics Machinery.

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