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Q&A: Market dynamics for molders and designers

Jeff Gwinnell, vice president of corporate development and strategy at M.A. Hanna (Cleveland), spends a good deal of time gathering market data from both molders (Hanna customers) and independent sources. He recently gave a presentation at Engineering Thermoplastics '99 (Orlando), which detailed this research as it applies to independent compounders. IMM asked Gwinnell to turn the data around, shedding light on high-growth markets and their dynamics from a molder's point of view.

Compounded annual growth rate percentages for injection molding markets based on SPI data from 1992 to 1996. Today's market is expected to follow trends established in the early '90s.

IMM: From the perspective of Hanna's customers, what are the three fastest growing markets today?

Gwinnell: From the major markets for injection molding, outside of automotive, the top three in size are electrical/electronic, projected to grow more than 6 percent annually to 2002; consumer durables, projected to grow at better than 5 percent annually; and industrial, growing at more than 4 percent annually. Currently, these markets are rather slow compared to some smaller specialty markets like medical, sporting goods, and toys, where we see double digit growth potential.

In E/E, we are still seeing growth in chip trays for semiconductor manufacturers, but most of the growth will be in applications only now being developed-in particular, hand-held devices. Telecommunications producers are combining functions into PCDs-personal communications devices-with size, shape, color, and functionality that will turn most existing devices into very small boat anchors. In computing, we are seeing the emergence of wireless remote devices that will take computing-at least home computing-off the desktop for good.

Replacing metals in major appliances such as washers, refrigerators, and air-conditioners will be a continuing growth opportunity in consumer durables. The use of soft-grip technology in tools and small appliances will also be a growth area. For industrial products, metal replacement in areas ranging from fluid transfer pumps to conveyor systems is driving the growth.

IMM: What technical challenges do designers and molders face?

Gwinnell: The technical challenges center around maintaining a mastery of rapidly improving technology. Finite-element analysis, design for manufacturability, quality control, mold design, and so on have always been required technical skills. But now they must be mastered against a growing array of new resins, new alloys, new compounds, new additive requirements, and even new molding techniques like gas assist and coinjection.

Mastering the materials science is, however, only half of it. For these advances in materials to truly have an impact, OEM designers must be aware of, and accepting of, a material's engineering properties. We have a vast body of knowledge around the engineering limits, durability, and failure modes of metals in structural parts.

Design engineers must develop the same comfort level designing with very new materials, and that will require increasing interaction with molders and compounders.

IMM: How about some examples?

Gwinnell: In E/E, thermoplastics with properties like conductivity (both electric and thermal), static dissipation, and shielding capability are going to be pushed into new applications; again, designers and molders must be comfortable working with these compounds. Two additional challenges are presented by the nature of these industries. First, suppliers need to be global and work with global specification materials that may be sourced from, and certainly will be assembled in, different countries. Second, suppliers need to be able to keep up with the accelerating product design lifecycle of this industry and respond quickly. The E/E products for late 1999 are being designed now; slow suppliers miss the boat.

Interestingly enough, this trend toward manufacturing with higher technology thermoplastics (for example soft-grip overmolding of TPEs for power tools) in consumer durables has a lower-tech counterpart. The displacement of glass-filled nylon by compounded polyolefins in some major appliance applications provides a reminder that commercial, as well as technical, factors drive creative thinking at the designer, molder, and compounder levels.

Industrial markets are challenged to achieve mastery of materials with low friction/good lubrication, durability, and low heat buildup. Creative technical solutions are emerging; for example, a new conveyor system that largely replaces metal and rubber with thermoplastics incorporates soft-touch TPE strips to grip the conveyed material. However, engineering conservatism and regulatory codes that are slow to evolve continue to be barriers in industrial (and, notably, construction) markets.

IMM: In the automotive industry, the function of specifying materials and designs is moving further back in the supply chain to Tier One suppliers. In what markets has this occurred besides automotive, and what does this mean for your customers?

Gwinnell: The trend towards concurrent engineering in automotive, where design and materials specification is pushed back to Tier One suppliers, is emerging in E/E and consumer durables as well. The driving force is simply that consumer products are critically dependent on world-class marketing to succeed. As a result, OEMs are focusing more of their efforts (and therefore dollars) in the marketing area.

The tradeoff is that more of the grunt work of engineering and specification will be pushed back to suppliers-with the OEM, of course, retaining approval authority and keeping firm control over appearance design. In many cases, small suppliers are more agile when it comes to innovation, and the big companies have learned to exploit that by pushing engineering further and further down the supply chain. Think of the personal computer, where dozens of innovators create plug-and-play components for standard chassis.

In addition, there will be secure roles for our customers even if they do not design and engineer. The business model used in decentralized markets calls for parts made with "noise-free manufacturing," meaning parts show minimum variability, maximum quality, and incredible lot-to-lot consistency. As a result, molders can stay out of the engineering design arena entirely if they can demonstrate consistent high quality manufacturing and position their service offering accordingly. Nevertheless, some engineering and design capability, or forming close partnerships with suppliers who do have these capabilities, will be increasingly valuable in the future.

IMM: How is this changing the function of the OEM designer, as he or she becomes more familiar with plastics' engineering properties? Are resin choices changing, for example?

Gwinnell: I've already talked about the design dynamic in the more conservative, heavy industries, where regulatory codes and engineering conservatism have limited the incursion of thermoplastics. This will change as engineering designers become more comfortable with the potential of some of the new materials.

In consumer-oriented markets, OEM designers have a good fundamental understanding of the classical resin properties and have been working hard to exploit those properties and extend their range of application. Unfortunately, just as designers are surfing confidently across current applications, a tidal wave of new material properties knocks them off the board, and they have to paddle hard to catch up. New additives, fillers, and compounding techniques are piled on top of new resin reactor technologies; increasingly, designers will turn to molders and compounders for material selection decisions.

Designers gain more degrees of freedom by involving molders and compounders in the design process-parts consolidation, snap fit fastening, insert molding, and so on all reduce cost while maintaining or improving functionality. Capturing these design benefits means molders and compounders will increasingly have to be involved early. In turn, speed of response will become a more valuable competitive weapon, as OEMs work with those suppliers who can get in and get it right first, essentially locking other suppliers out.

OEM designers will have a broader array of resin choices, but more critical will be how they manage the growing spectrum of formulations in concert with molders and compounders. New resins mean new approaches and new opportunities; new formulations mean new functionality for existing resins; new additives mean new formulations, and new analytic and simulation tools mean everyone needs less time between breakthroughs in pure research and practical use of those new ideas. Overall, this means that plastics is not an industry for those who want to move slowly and stay comfortable.


Contact Information
M.A. Hanna Co.
Cleveland, OH
Jeff Gwinnell
Phone: (800) 413-6791
Fax: (216) 589-4200
Website: www.mahanna.com
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