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February 1, 2002

6 Min Read
By Design: K 2001: A designer's perspective

In this bimonthly column, Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. (Libertyville, IL) shares his special perspective on issues important to design engineers and the molding industry. 

I am now reflecting on my triennial pilgrimage to the mecca of the plastics industry. The K Show in Düsseldorf, Germany is the world's largest plastics event. There were 2885 exhibitors touting their latest and greatest products among 17 buildings totaling 1.6 million sq ft. The more than 230,000 attendees created an occasional traffic jam in the aisles, but the biggest crowds were in the injection molding buildings. For a product designer, K is like being a little kid in a toy store with his grandfather's credit card. So much to see and learn about. There is never enough time. 

Processing Machinery Dominates 
K is basically a plastic material and machinery extravaganza. Processing equipment dominates the show. The European orientation was noticeable. Europe has more solid waste legislation than the United States. Most of one large building was devoted to recycling equipment. Recycling equipment will become a growth market when the U.S. gets serious about its own mounting solid waste problems. When that happens the European suppliers, who have already developed their equipment, will have an advantage over North American machine manufacturers. Also, there was more molding of thermoset materials at K than at North American trade shows. 

One interesting, new U.S. development that caught my attention was the two-material, sandwich molding machine introduced by Twinshot Technologies of Rifton, NY (see "Rediscovering, Unleashing the Value of Coinjection," December 2001 IMM, pp. 24-25). This unique process uses a standard single-barrel machine with a second screw inside of the standard screw. The two separate melt flow paths come together at the tip of the primary screw. Two-material molding is growing in usage. This is a good process for increasing recycled content. The ability to retrofit a standard molding machine with this special barrel and screws will allow more molders to enter this market with a much smaller upfront investment. 

My overall impression of the processing equipment displays was that most everything was bigger, faster, and more fully automated. This confirms my belief that U.S. injection molders' reluctance to adopt robots is an invitation to another auction. (Click here for a report on automation at K.) 

If there was an exciting, totally new plastic material introduction, I missed it.

Plastic Materials 
The manufacturers of plastic materials were major exhibitors. They organized some of the largest and most elaborate displays. This was reassuring, as the major resin manufacturers have been conspicuously absent from recent North American trade shows. 

The plastic material suppliers have always been my first stop at K. This is where they introduce their new resins. Equally important, they showcase all kinds of applications made with their materials. Many of these durable products are new and they provide an indication of what will be on store shelves in a few months. 

Resins with very high specific gravity and significantly increased thermal and electrical conductivity were featured. An automobile side window molded in polycarbonate was on display. I can just imagine what the stylists will do with the shape of cars when injection molded windows become a reality. Every resin manufacturer was touting improved materials. But if there was an exciting, totally new plastic material introduction, I missed it. 

The products actually being produced in the machinery halls are also enlightening. These items are international in scope, but European products dominate. European OEMs appear to be less reluctant to push styling and the use of color. Experience indicates that North American OEMs will pick up on these trends in a year or two. 

Plastic Products 
Men love cars, and components for the transportation industry dominated the show. Electrical and medical parts vied with packaging applications for second place. 

Insert, assembly, and two-color molding were everywhere. Sharply contrasting, bright colors were shown on office equipment. Translucent see-through colors were molded in several booths. Some of these products were two-color molded in contrasting cool, transparent shades and bold, opaque colors. Two-material, soft-touch products with an elastomer molded onto a rigid base still seem to be in vogue. One has to wonder how much longer these two styling trends will continue. My guess is that when the combination is functional, it will last forever. 

An Office Molding Machine 
Styling is also being pursued by many of the plastic processing machinery builders. The contemporary, clean-cut appearance of many of these machines has benefited from the input of an industrial designer. Many of these machines would look more at home in an office or laboratory than on the manufacturing floor. This is probably a trend that will continue. 

A number of the exhibitors showed inmold painting and decorating. One of the most impressive applications was insert injection molding onto a painted or printed and decorated thermoformed part. One side of a robot's end-of-arm fixture picks up the thermoformed part and positions it in the cavity while the other side of the same fixture removes the molded parts from the core side. The process sounds involved, but it runs very efficiently. This technique allows the molder to use reprocessed material on the back side of the part. 

The hiding of weldlines, flow marks, and the irregular appearance of a reinforced material are not new applications for inmold decorating, but it appears to be perfected to the point of commercial viability. Mobile phone housings and automobile body panels are now being produced by this technique. Packaging and toys can't be too far off. I have to believe that this technique has great potential. This could be a good niche or added-value market for a processor who has thermoforming and injection molding capabilities. 

World-class Design 
The K show, once again, convinced me that the concept of world-class products, where one design is suitable for the global market, is an intriguing idea, the time for which will never come. Each country has its own unique consumer preferences. Most European cars, grocery carts, and refrigerators are smaller than in the United States. All multinational OEMs would be well advised to send their product designers to the next K exposition in order to develop a much-needed international perspective. 

During the three days that I spent at K, I encountered fewer Americans than in the past. I assume this is due to the economy and the terrorist attacks. However, I have lived through other scary times and other recessions; life and business go on. Those who invested in attending K are now in a better position to take advantage of the next upturn in business. 

K is a very long, intellectually stimulating walk. The prospect of finding something exciting in the next exhibitor's stand masks the pain in your feet and helps keep you walking.



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