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How many industries can you name that followed up 24.1% growth in 2010 with an expansion of 29.4% in 2011? Those gaudy figures are for the additive manufacturing industry, and were reported this week by Clare Goldsberry in a series of articles covering the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Rapid conference and exhibition. Is additive manufacturing the next big thing?

Tony Deligio

June 1, 2012

4 Min Read
The week that was: Highlights and the top 10 articles for 5/28-6/1

, and were reported this week by Clare Goldsberry in a series of articles covering the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Rapid conference and exhibition. Is additive manufacturing the next big thing? Increasing demand for small-quantity custom parts, including one-off and "on-demand" components, seem to suggest it is.

You don't typically see "mass production", "low cost", and "high-performance composites" in the same sentence, but there they were in Stephen Moore's report on work by a group of Japanese companies and Tokyo University. Vehicle weights could be cut by 40-70% with polyproylene as a matrix resin, or polyamide, in a recyclable format. Japan is often at the forefront of efficiency gains in autos and it would seem to be leading the way here, making widespread adoption of composites in cars increasingly a question of when not if. Much of the non-China attention in Asia focuses on Vietnam, but Stephen also reported on how Burma could become a new manufacturing hub in the region. Stephen also reported on an advance in Korea that has composites replacing steel in a railroad application, bogie down indeed.

Proponents of plastics often point to the materials' design and mechanical flexibility as key benefits, and those traits are on full display in the latest class of prosthetics covered by our Medical Channel editor, Doug Smock. Doug looked at how plastics, additive manufacturing, and electronics are making the devices "more responsive, more comfortable and better looking." Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has long been promoted as means to improve shipping logistics, allowing companies to track inventory in real time, but can it also make hospitals "smarter"? How's this for smart: Doug reported that application of RFID helped the Mayo Clinic cut its average error rate from around 10% to below 1%. "That saves lives, and it saves money," Patrick Sweeney, founder of RFID software supplier ODIN, told Doug.

At NPE in April, ExxonMobil Chemical representatives said the prospect of new cracker builds in North America would depend on whether the recent abundance of cheap natural gas represented a fundamental change in the market or not. Heather Caliendo's reporting on the company's plans for a multi-billion dollar project in Texas, including a new ethane steam cracker at Baytown, and two new PE lines at Mont Belvieu, would seem to indicate they think cheap gas, and the new economics of petrochemicals, are here to stay. Heather also looked at PETs continued gains against glass in the tea market. Bag bans grab headlines, but plastics is still growing in many markets because it is fundamentally greener than many of the materials it replaces.  As Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea told Heather, in glass, the product is 66% liquid and 34% package, while in plastic, it's 92% liquid and 8% package. Would you rather pay to ship product or package?

Finally as I write this, news reports on the latest job figures paint a pretty bleak picture, and the Dow giving back all of 2012's gains doesn't help the overall mood, but maybe economics, like politics, are local. I traveled through Michigan this week, visiting processors and suppliers, and every one of them was in a hiring mode. Driving between appointments in Troy, MI a machine shop listed several positions for hire, including CNC and EDM machinists, which made for much better scenery than the shuttered plants and "available for lease" signs I saw on trips there in '08, '09, and '10. 

Top 10 articles at PlasticsToday.com 5/28-6/1

Last week's holiday delayed Top 10 (5/21-5/25)

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