is part of the Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Articles from 2004 In October

Cyclics adding capacity, again

Even though first commercial parts with its material are only now entering the market, officials at Cyclics Corp. (Schenectady, NY), the developer and supplier of cyclic polybutylene terephthalate (CBT) resins, say interest in their material is so significant that they are searching for a site for their second plant already, even though the first plant is not even ready. Cyclics'' officials say the new plant, likely sited in Europe or North America, will have capacity of 25,000 to 50,000 tonnes/yr.

The supplier''s first plant, in Schwarzheide, Germany, will begin commercial supply next month. Construction there began for a 2500-tonne/yr plant in 2003, but work is already ongoing to double that by 2006. Roman Eder, VP global sales, says rapid adoption of the material by rotomolders has driven some of the need for a second plant.

Cyclic PBT uses PBT as a base material, but modifies it so that its viscosity is much lower when it is polymerized. Mechanical properties are comparable to those of PBT, but the Cyclic version has about double the molecular weight, so that wear resistance and other MW-related properties are improved.

The first announced, commercial use is in plug assist for thermoforming, supplied by Emerson & Cuming. Cyclics'' officials expect to see demand from rotomolding, cast molding, composites process, coatings, and compounds. Two compounds will be commercially available from next month. Cyclics says it is especially targeting applications such as medical devices, often made in low quantities, but via injection molding due to design requirements. "Industrial designers are a target, to teach them they don''t need injection molding for everything," says John Ciovacco, chairman of the board and VP global marketing.

Matt Defosse [email protected]

Electrifying conductive polymer technology

After receiving his first patent in February for an antenna made from resin, Tom Aisenberry, inventor of ElectriPlast, a conductive plastic he''s trademarked, started thinking about other potential applications for his technology: mobile phone housings that make the entire phone its own antenna; vehicle floorboards or seats that radiate heat across their entire surface; defibrillator paddles that can focus electricity; solderless circuit boards without metal connectors; or wiring with as much or more conductivity as copper that is one-eighth the weight and can be coextruded with an insulator covering.

"I thought, ''Man, we might have something,''" Aisenberry says, explaining that he''s filed for 80-plus patents since. Resin companies have long sought to create truly conductive compounds that could offer a lightweight alternative to copper and aluminum with much greater design flexibility and corrosion resistance, but a solution has been elusive.

Aisenberry says ElectriPlast conducts heat and electricity as if it were metal by using an undisclosed filler to form a 3-D matrix of conductors when homogenized in resins like PC, PC/ABS, and nylon, or elastomers like TPE or EPDM. To make the polymer conductive, the material''s molecular sequence must form a chain that alternates single and double bonds between the atoms. Aisenberry reports varying degrees of success with a wide variety of polymers, and adds that like any filler, these compounds enjoy enhanced mechanical properties over virgin materials.

Interest is on the rise with one customer requesting 100,000 lb/month, an order Aisenberry can''t currently fill with his overseas compounding partner. He would like to increase production and bring it back to the States, but not in house. For the time being, he has set up a license to collect royalties on a piece- part basis.

The media are paying attention, too: Aisenberry talked to Modern Plastics at Plastics USA, as well as the Chicago Tribune and the local NBC affiliate.

ElectriPlast and the PlasTenna are owned and marketed by Integral Technologies Inc. (Bellingham, WA), for whom Aisenberry consulted on a satellite dish project. Admitting that "what I saw was a disaster," Aisenberry completely revamped the design from its galvanized steel predecessor, and after tinkering with different polymer/filler matrices in his lab, created a conductive, moldable polymer for a one-piece antenna solution.

The company has signed a nonbinding letter of intent with DuPont Packaging & Industrial Polymers to explore antenna markets with DuPont resins, but otherwise, Aisenberry and Integral have avoided formal partnerships, focusing instead on application development.

Without technical training in plastics or a four-year degree, Aisenberry''s educational focus has been in electronics and radio transmission-including stints at a recording studio and a defense contractor. A self-confessed workaholic, he admits he''s had more time than most to ponder the potential applications for a truly conductive polymer.

Tony Deligio [email protected]

Contact information

Integral Technologies

Atofina reinforces nylon 11, 12 presence

Having invested €60 million in its Rilsan nylon 11 and 12 business over the last four years, Paris-based Atofina is currently enjoying annual sales growth of 5% as the materials continue to replace rubbers and metals, mostly in automotive applications. The polymers, similar in properties but different in origins (nylon 12 is made from mineral oil, nylon 11 from castor oil), are characterized by high barrier to hydrocarbons, chemical resistance, flexibility even at temperatures around -40ºC, dimensional stability, and easy processing.

In recent months, the company announced several new developments [August 2004 MP/MPI]. First is an addition to its range of conductive grades for automotive fuels lines, Rilsan M-BESN Black P 212 CTL, the first nylon 11 to meet conductivity requirements of U.S. carmakers (surface resistivity below 106 ohms, Standard SAE J2260). Automotive Market Manager Joachim Merziger says with a higher melting point than conductive nylon 12, the new grade is ideal for fuel pipes, with improved burst pressure and connection fitting retention at high temperature, as well as flexibility. It works in corrugated and smooth tubes, monolayer structures, or coextrusions with standard nylon 11. (A conductive nylon 12 Rilsan-M-AESN Black P 212 CTL, -was launched at the end of 2003.)

With new direct-injection diesel engines, fuel lines are having to transport fuels at well over 100ºC, compared to about 60ºC for traditional diesel engines. Pressures are also rising: already at 1600 bar, they are heading toward 2000 bar. Two new Rilsans-M-BESN Black P 210 TL-a new nylon 11, and a modified nylon 12-M-AESN Black P 210 TL-are intended for this application since they withstand 125ºC long-term temps and 150ºC peaks.

The latter, already available, contains a small amount of nylon 11 to increase its softness. New technology allows very fine control over the alloy morphology, Merziger says. Polyolefins can also be used for the same purpose, but with the new grade, better dispersion of the modifier is possible, yielding higher crystallinity and better thermo-mechanical properties.

The nylon 11 grade, currently at the pre-industrialization stage, incorporates new polymerization technology said to combine conflicting properties: it is more rigid at high temperatures, but more flexible at cold temperatures. Nylon 11 has a melting point about 10 deg C higher than nylon 12, yielding pipes with improved mechanical performance at very high temperatures.

Hydrolysis-resistant Rilsan M-AESN Black P 110 TL, a nylon 12, is said to offer major cost savings to equipment manufacturers and carmakers by reducing the weight of tubing, and simplifying assembly (which can be automated), compared to metal or rubber versions. This also contains small amounts of nylon 11. Other solutions in development for automotive cooling circuits include a nylon 11 for service temperatures above 120ºC, and a multilayer system that handles temperatures greater than 130ºC. Atofina, Paris, France; +33 1 49008396;

Controlled rheology PP is free of alcohol, acetone

Reactor grade polypropylene (PP) is often modified (so-called vis-breaking) in the extruder to adjust molecular weight distribution and increase melt-flow index. The final product, Controlled Rheology Polypropylene (CRPP), contains decomposition products of organic peroxides used in this process. Until recently, all peroxides commercially available for the CRPP process resulted in resin with a specific alcohol content and significant amounts of acetone.

The alcohol in most cases-tert-butyl alcohol (TBA)-has a high boiling point and remains in the CRPP. During use it slowly releases, causing smell and taste issues and leading to FDA restriction on TBA levels in food-contact applications. Volatile acetone presents safety hazards in storage silos and bulk transport facilities.

Trigonox 301 allows alcohol-free CRPP production says Akzo Nobel Global Product Information Manager Coen van Dijk. Approved for food contact by the BgVV and FDA, this organic peroxide eliminates gas explosion risk during storage because it doesn''t generate acetone. Akzo Nobel Polymer Chemicals, Amersfoort, Netherlands; +31 33 467 6645;


High-performance PE targets thinwalled parts

A new grade of Surpass single-site catalyst-produced polyethylene, IFs932A, targets thinwall injection molding applications. The manufacturer says this material, using the company''s proprietary Sclairtech technology, has a unique combination of properties not found in conventional metallocene resins, and the processing efficiencies associated with it help lower overall converting costs. IFs932A has low viscosity to allow easier mold fills with high cavitation tools, shorter cycle times, high clarity, and energy savings due to lower barrel temperatures.

It has a balance of toughness and stiffness. Molders can produce more parts using less resin and improve the strength of their current parts, says Eric Kelusky, VP advanced Sclairtech development at the company. The organoleptic properties are said to be superior to other PE grades on the market, making it ideal for food packaging applications such as lids and closures. It has lower shrinkage and less warpage, which equates to improved part handling.

Last year the company introduced a Surpass grade for blown film, and it just released two grades, RMs539 and 244, for rotomolding applications. These last two, the first with high-flow characteristics and RMs244 for ultra-rigid industrial applications are both available worldwide. Nova Chemicals, Calgary, AB, Canada; +1 403-750-3600;


Nylon suppliers design grades for water assist

Nylon manufacturers are creating new materials specifically for molding using water-injection technique (WIT), a technology for molding rod-shaped parts with large cross sections that is gaining more and more proponents. Until now its use has been primarily limited to automotive parts such as media lines, pedals, and roof racks. But other applications are in the sights of WIT molders: furniture parts, sports and leisure goods, and handles.

During K 2004, two leading nylon suppliers offered grades tailored for water-injection processing. Lanxess, the recently spun-off polymers business of Bayer, has developed grades Durethan BKV 30 G and DP2-2224/30. "Depending on the particular component, they enable cycle times to be shortened by [up] to 70% compared with gas-injection technique (GIT)," says Lanxess'' WIT expert Steffan Lang. DP2-2224/30 is particularly suitable for automotive coolant lines due to its chemical resistance. It also forms very smooth inner surfaces with no risk of fibers or fillers being flushed out. Injection molding machine manufacturer Engel has worked with the supplier to test BKV 30 G in a two-component handle molded via WIT using the nylon with the supplier''s Desmopan 487 thermoplastic polyurethane.

Rhodia also offers two new WIT-specific grades. The developments follow three years of work at Rhodia that included development of its own WIT mold, water injectors, and injection unit. Both materials aim at automotive applications. They equal or outperform the glycol resistance of parts molded with the firm''s Technyl A 218Z1 V30 blk 34N, used with the gas-injection technique. The new grades are Technyl A 338wit1 V30 blk 6N and A338wit2 V30 blk 36N. Impact resistance, compared to the GIT material, is 80% higher with the first grade, and doubled with the second. Lanxess, Leverkusen, Germany; +49 214 3037925; Rhodia Engineering Thermoplastics, Lyon, France; +33 1 55 38 4000;

PP grades for injection stretch blowmolding

A new range of polypropylene (PP) resins, Acclear HP I-series, target injection stretch-blowmolding applications by offering good production rates and bottle quality processed on standard PET injection stretch-blowmolding equipment. These proprietary PPs utilize a fast heat-up technology to allow for blowing rates equal to those of PET on the same equipment. In comparison to standard grades, they provide better wall-thickness distribution in blowmolded parts and have good clarity, organoleptics, as well as a good stiffness/impact balance. BP Amoco Chemical, Naperville, IL, US; +1 630-420-4950;

Conductive polymer said to represent technology breakthrough

A conductive polymer that the producers say will "transform the industry," ElectraFlex, is a conductive thermoplastic elastomer for use in electronic and electric applications. It incorporates low resistivity with good mechanical properties. The material is based on carbon crystal technology. It has high heat and chemical resistance, up to 500% elongation, high tensile strength, and processes like a standard thermoplastic. Some grades are capable of being switched on and off ranging from 10-20 to 10-1 ohm at the molecular level. Other grades are piezoelectrically active. Rauh Polymers, Akron, OH, US; +1 330-376-1120;

Powder coatings protect metal pipes

Raprex 400 thermoplastic powder coatings were developed to protect industrial steel structures and pipes. These modified linear-low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) powders can be applied to steel, aluminum, copper, and other metals employing standard powder coating techniques. No special pretreatment is required except shot-blasting the metal surface to physically clean it. Raprex has a potential as a coating for wood, concrete, and polar plastics not requiring special bonding layers. Sterigenics International, Advanced Applications Division, San Diego, CA, US; +1 888-727-7391;


Flame retardant flexible for PP applications

Techsperse PM1356E25 provides high-level flame retardancy across a wide range of applications including extruded hoses and ducts, thermoformable sheets, injection molded cases for office equipment and home appliances, as well as household articles molded from polypropylene. Mark Jordan, marketing VP at the company says the product provides a chemical synergy between organic and inorganic ingredients. This allows the material to be used in both homo- and co-polymer PP grades. It can be processed up to 250ºC. Loading levels vary according to application and end-use markets. The flame retardant meets UL-94 sections V-0, V-1, V-2, CPAI-84 section 7, and NFPA-701 regulations. Passing less demanding tests can typically be achieved by adjusting the concentrate''s letdown ratio. Techmer PM, Rancho Dominguez, CA, US; +1 310-632-9211;

Industry and academia working together

Bayer Polymers Americas Region commissioned a survey examining a basic and significant question: "How can we expect our students to achieve in science, if their teachers aren''t making the grade?"

There has been a lot of news lately noting the importance of improving U.S. science education. Science and technology industry executives have voiced growing concern over the lack of U.S. science and engineering talent, coupled with the sharp drop in U.S. visas issued to foreign students who''ve filled these jobs for the past decade.

In the Bayer-commissioned survey, university deans call particular attention to partnership opportunities for science and technology companies at the college/university level to help shape the way teachers are trained to teach science so they are more effective once they enter the classroom.

New paradigm

Training workers in skills needed by industry has long been the arena of the technical colleges, which typically offer two-year degrees in specific areas of skill sets to meet the requirements of manufacturers. Many in industry however, have faulted these so-called "vo-tech"(vocational technical) schools for not having a handle on what it is that manufacturing employers need in a skilled employee. Hence, industry is taking a bigger role, often promoting partnerships between their own manufacturing plants and local colleges and universities.

These types of partnerships are grabbing hold in a number of places in the U.S. For example, Mississippi State University (MSU; Jackson, MS) began a program in conjunction with Nissan Corp., which has a huge vehicle manufacturing plant in Canton, MS. Dr. J. Donald Trotter, Assoc. VP for Strategic Initiatives and Interim Director CAVS Research facility in Starkville, MS, says CAVS'' role is not to compete with the community colleges in the area and their vo-tech programs, but to work with them to enhance the environment of the students by bringing in engineering tools, improving the training of the trainers themselves, and implementing a learning environment using online adaptive learning that incorporates engineering tools.

CAVS is not only an academic program, but a competitive tool as well. "We''re confronted with global competition like everyone else," notes Dr. Trotter. "We''re dealt a deck of cards here in Mississippi; we do not have the same resources as they do in Michigan. Companies come here for low-cost labor, but in a global economy, that''s gone. So we''re back-filling with high tech."

The automotive industry is one that the state of Mississippi focuses on heavily. Nissan was weighing expanding its operations in either Mexico or in Canton, Dr. Trotter explains. "Here you have two places competing for expansion, so what do we have to do in Mississippi to compete?" Dr. Trotter asks. "Nissan pointed out that only 5% to 10% of their cost is labor, so even if Mexico was half of Mississippi''s labor cost, how much will they save?"

The CAVS program helps Mississippi provide the automotive industry in the Southeast with better engineering methods, better supply chain logistics, and better human resources support.

Dean Norman, director of the CAVS extension program, says the fundamental concept of developing a southern corridor for the automotive industry is to provide the human resources required. Currently, Norman says there are about 15,000 to 16,000 jobs associated with the automotive industry, and within the next 15 years that could become as many as 50,000 jobs.

The Right Time for The Right Place!

The Right Place Inc., a program between Western Michigan University (WMU; Grand Rapids, MI) and local area manufacturers, is once again providing opportunities for area molders to become more globally competitive with the reestablishment of the program''s Premier Class Injection Molding consortium (PCIM). So far, two top-notch custom-molding companies have signed onto the PCIM II consortium: Anderson Technologies of Grand Haven and Clarion Technologies, headquartered in Grand Rapids.

Companies in the program pay $20,000 a year, and participants come together to brainstorm about problems facing the industry and explore solutions. Participants also conduct research in a lab setting and on the production floors of the participating companies, with the results of the R&D made available to the member companies.

WMU students from the undergraduate through Ph.D. levels participate in the research projects, gaining hands-on experience to complement their academic training. Many of the companies that choose to participate do so for the opportunity to recruit talented, skilled employees. That was Clarion''s incentive. Jeff Norr, Clarion VP of manufacturing, and several other Clarion executives participated in the first PCIM consortium while working for large automotive parts supplier Prince Corp., and recognized the benefits of PCIM. Norr notes that there are three primary advantages to participation.

First, it allows member companies to leverage their resource assets by combining them with other companies in the community. "If you have ''x'' number of resources at your company, you can combine those with other companies'' and have exponentially increased resources at your disposal," says Norr.

Second, the relationship developed with the academic community has benefits including being able to influence the curriculum and recruiting personnel. Often, there can be a gap in what the academic side sees as a good curriculum and what industry actually needs in employees. Norr says being able to provide input into curriculum development creates a greater balance, and then provides an opportunity to hire the right people because of being able to observe students under actual working conditions.

Third, there is the networking opportunity with other companies. "It''s not a primary advantage," says Norr, "but an advantage both in terms of seeing who''s who in the industry in your area, and share thoughts and strategies while maintaining confidentiality."

Technical advantages are evident as well, Norr adds. Participation in PCIM has had an impact on how Clarion designs and categorizes tools, how it controls molding processes, and how that relates to part checking, i.e. controlling the process vs. checking parts to achieve quality standards. It also helps Clarion keep its own technical people sharp by exposing them to a broader view of production R&D projects. It''s a way to provide out-of-the-box thinking.

Some of the projects that have been pursued by PCIM over the years have very specific tangible advantages that are project specific, explains Norr. One of those projects was shot-to-shot repeatability research by WMU.

"It allowed us to quantify process-control methodologies, then use the data to explain to customers why we were doing what we were doing and using that as a competitive advantage," he says.

"The science used in this project at WMU far exceeded what most manufacturing industries would have done in the same scenario. For example, so much in the manufacturing business becomes intuitive, we often skip steps as an efficient use of resources. But often that results in not enough data to help customers see the same conclusions that we see.

"Because the PCIM shot-to-shot repeatability project went through each step and documented the process, it allowed the customer to see what we were doing without burning a lot of our company resources, and us to use this as a competitive advantage."

Glenn Anderson, president of Anderson Technologies, concurs with Norr. "The types of projects we''re working on have a lot of value, so you get a good return on your investment," he says. "Currently, we working on a program that will add a scientific basis to things the industry is doing with intuitive knowledge.

"We''re in the market to serve the customer who wants and needs to buy valid manufacturing solutions and quality products. PCIM allows us to work with other companies like ourselves, toward a common goal and do it dynamically."

Medical devices, too

If the automotive industry is predominant in Michigan and the Southeast, the medical device industry is big in Massachusetts. With more than 250 medical-device companies in the state, the Worcester Poly-technic Institute''s (WPI) Bioengineering Institute (BEI) is an initiative of business and other academic institutions in the state. BEI, formed in 2002, helps bring medical-device products to market with the help of companies such as Nypro Inc. (Clinton, MA), a premier member of BEI.

According to Nypro, the affiliation with BEI will allow it to explore new ideas and technologies in collaboration with WPI''s faculty and students. Nypro will also have access to medical technology expertise at WPI and BEI''s other partnering universities. In turn, small BEI member companies will have access to one of the world''s largest plastics injection molding companies.

Clare Goldsberry [email protected]

Contact information

Mississippi State CAVS

Liversedge, England with Birkby's Plastics

Dating to 1867, Birkby''s was a tannery and manufacturing chemist, and one of England''s first molders of thermoset plastics. But the course of the 20th century brought hard times for many of the U.K.''s plastics processors. Yet, where some see difficulty, others find opportunity; so Ian Hunter and two colleagues executed a management buyout in April 2003.

Hunter, the managing director, with quality systems director Stephen Harrison and finance director Andrew Bullivant, acquired the firm from parent company Marubeni Corp. The path since the MBO has not always been smooth, admits Hunter, but it''s been in the right direction. For FY2004, sales grew by £6.8 million ($12.2 million) to £38 million, turning a loss to a profit of £2.62 million. "Financially, we''ve had a very good turn-around," he says.

Along the way, Birkby''s had to confront vestiges of its long history, including five-minute tea breaks each hour. Hunter invested considerable effort to convince the union such niceties were not compatible with the cut-throat world of automotive parts molding, which accounts for 70% of the firm''s sales.

"We''ve a good relationship with the union, even though it has been difficult making everyone see the shift from a large corporate owner as a positive one," he says. The firm was able to retain almost all of its full-time employees, and recently started a three-shift pattern five days a week. To make workers more cognizant of their role in the firm''s success, stations were installed where employees could see how results are tracked: in quality parts molded, percentage defects, and employee absenteeism, for instance.

Birkby''s has about 420 full-time employees and many temporary workers. Part-time employees help the firm stay flexible; during a recent visit a team of them were assembling hard drives for Hewlett-Packard. "They [hard drives] don''t have much plastic in them," notes Hunter, but the computer maker was already a customer for molded parts and offered the extra work.

Birkby''s has three business units: Japanese automotive trim, European automotive, and business electronics/ non-automotive, with each housed in adjoining halls. About half of the firm''s 70-plus injection molding machines are in the fast-growing Japanese trim business. "For Toyota, we are doing about 20 to 25 mold changes per day," he says, a sign of both the processor''s versatility as well as its level of activity.

The business units place different demands on employees. Japanese carmakers tend to want close work with Birkby''s at every step, whereas European carmakers "expect us take over complete project management to include parts design," says Hunter. And though automotive projects tend to run for three years or more, the non-automotive unit requires very fast time-to-market. All are tough markets, he admits, but expects his firm to hold its own. "Our speed and flexibility, and hopefully our pricing, will be recognized," he says.

A December 2001 article in MP detailed IMX-inmold everything-as the firm''s vision for its technology future. Inmold projects have continued, says Hunter, but some of the IMX research effort had to be suspended to make personnel available for ongoing business. But next year Hunter hopes to re-form the firm''s R&D section to further develop processes such as inmold welding, assembly, and decoration.

The firm has a number of new molding machines and is making room for more. Also relatively new are plant-wide materials handling systems, as well as updated enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. "It''s incredible how much this [ERP] ties the whole plant together," notes Hunter, but adds there is no substitute for "management by walking around."

As for the global competition, Hunter simply says, "Ultimately, I think quality products, delivered on time, will be recognized by customers."

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

Don't move the manufacturing before you re-think the design

Processors in many countries have seen customers pull up stakes and take work to countries with lower-cost labor. A new study from Boothroyd Dewhurst argues that getting to low-cost labor often costs quite a bit.

The study, entitled "Improved Product Design Practices Would Make U.S. Manufacturing More Cost Effective," has a decidedly pro-U.S. slant, but one of the principal authors says that is not really the point. Dave Meeker, a consultant at Neoteric Product Development (Acton, MA) and lecturer on mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the real purpose of the study is to draw attention to the power of design to save final costs.

Who and what

The study was written by Meeker, who has 20-plus years of industrial design and engineering experience with firms including Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, and Nicholas Dewhurst, exec. VP of software supplier Boothroyd Dewhurst, who also has an extensive project engineering background. It is available online at, and includes two real-life examples, one for a power drill made by Milwaukee Electric Tool, and the other detailing an unidentified consumer product.

The study does not constitute a sales pitch, but Boothroyd Dewhurst does in fact supply software for DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly), which is intended to help firms with the detailed work that Meeker says too many overlook. The firm also offers consulting services and training to help manufacturers learn to design parts that are cheaper to manufacture and assemble.

Referring to manufacturers as well as plastics processors engaged in parts design, Meeker says, "Often you do design without a target cost even set," or without tracking some of the hard-to-quantify, but still very relevant, costs. "You need to break things down in extreme detail, looking at eventual warranty costs, cost of packaging, and so on. Some companies track all that, but the vast majority don''t," he says.

While the study is essentially a look at manufacturing in the U.S. versus manufacturing in China, Meeker says the results actually apply to outsourcing anywhere. "We have substantial data on a number of countries [where outsourcing has become popular]," he says.

He adds that the DFMA software is used not only in North America but also in Europe, and a few manufacturers in China have even purchased it.

Hourly wage myopia clouds reality

The study focused on China because that country has been the focus of so many manufacturers'' outsourcing campaigns. According to the paper, manufacturers taking work to China overlook about 24% of the costs (tangible and intangible) of doing so; they are too focused on the fabled wage rates of less than $1.00/hr.

The authors say the actual wage rate is often a multiple of that oft-quoted figure due to the overlooked overhead on labor that is often paid to a broker who manages the project.

Other costs not considered in full, or incorrectly accounted for, include the cost of inventory in transit, lost time due to time-zone differences, the costs for the frequent travel that is often required, and quality issues, among others. Meeker says the 24% a manufacturer should add to its estimated costs of manufacturing in China "are a very conservative estimate" and is a much higher premium in countries without China''s sub-$1.00/hr base rate for labor.

In addition, Meeker argues that the savings realized in an individual part''s cost by shifting work to lower-wage countries are not nearly as high as those savings that would be realized by manufacturers who instead design items that don''t require so many parts in the first place. "The real power of DFMA is in parts-count reduction," he explains.

Posing a simple plastics processing example, Meeker asks, "Why label a part when you can simply change the mold to include the label''s information? Where we are really driving to (with our software and consulting) is the theoretical minimum part count."

Meeker places some of the blame on parts designers. "Some of it is designers don''t know current processes, such as thixomolding. And some of it is, they design parts without custom tools to tell them what it will actually cost (to manufacture their designs)." DFMA software enables you to cut costs of a part feature-by-feature, and also lets you know which processes (injection molding, thermoforming, metal stamping, etc.) will work and which won''t. for individual components.

In short, "Manufacturers need to have a level of understanding of total manufacturing and assembly costs, not just pick the lowest bidder," argues Meeker. As many processors can attest, often the lowest bidder "just wanted an in" and then later will hike prices once it has won the bidding and it is too late for an OEM to switch suppliers, he notes.

For processors in many countries, of course, this study is preaching to the choir. Their question might be, who should pay for DFMA software? The OEM benefits if it cuts its total costs, but so does the processor if he keeps business from being sent overseas.

Meeker says, "It varies as to who pays. I think the engineering company should do it. But there is a partnership between OEM and supplier", he says. "But ten years ago, an OEM would have done its own mold flow analysis. Now, more of that is pushed onto the plastics processors."

Plastics processors may want to use some of the information in this study to push back at customers who are too focused on labor costs. They may also want to reconsider if they have the necessary product design skills in-house to make goods that make sense for design and assembly.

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

Contact information

Boothroyd Dewhurst

Color them unhappy

Quandry for pigment suppliers

Spiraling crude oil prices are placing upward pressure on resin prices globally to the detriment of plastics processors, but pigment suppliers are finding themselves faced with a quandary. While they too are suffering from high raw material costs, over-capacity in the industry means some pigment prices are actually falling.

A recent study by consultant Bremaco GmbH in Lupsingen, Switzerland has found azo- and phthalocyanine-based pigments most affected. According to Bremaco managing director Fritz Brenzikofer, prices for the two key ingredients of phthalocyanine blues and greens, namely phthalic anhydride and copper, have risen by around 100% in the past three years, while aluminum increased by 33%, molybdenum by 366%, processing solvents by 67% and crude oil by 96%. "Though this trend has been going on for the last couple of years, the major increases have occurred during the past three months [to August 2004]," says Brenzikofer.

But as raw materials costs have increased, pigment prices have steadily declined due to over-capacity, been built up over the past decade. Phthalo greens, for example, have fallen from $7/kg to $5/kg over the past two years, while azo pigments have fallen by 10% on average.

"The question remains-what effect will the double burden of rising material costs and sinking prices have on the global supply situation for pigments in the future?" notes Brenzikofer. He estimates global capacity for organic pigments at 270,000 tonnes versus demand of 230,000 tonnes. While the increase in capacity for high-performance products has been limited to around 5% to 10%, there has been a greather than 10% increase in capacity for commodity products like azo pigments and phthalo pigments in the last two years.

Technique catches DuPont''s eye

DuPont Engineering Polymers has formed a marketing agreement with Kolorfusion Intl. (Denver, CO). The agreement covers Kolorfusion''s dye sublimation printing technology, which can print a permanent, wear-resistant design onto 3-D objects.

In a statement, Ella Rabil, senior marketing specialist for DuPont Engineering Polymers, says, "Here at DuPont we see excellent potential for dye sublimation-printing of engineering plastics parts for sporting goods, power tools, appliances, consumer electronics, and other kinds of products where a permanent, wear-resistant multicolor image is desired."

Dye sublimation causes dyes to penetrate below a part''s surface, and works on plastics as well as glass and metals. Kolorfusion acquired process patents for the dye sublimation process and licenses the process to users, or decorates parts supplied by customers. The firm says the process tops inmold labeling, silkscreen printing, decals, and other surface decoration techniques. Compared to IML, Kolorfusion says its process is less costly and is suitable for lower-volume runs.

Most liccensees to date have been sporting goods suppliers but the firm hopes to gain more customers in consumer goods and automotive parts. In June it licensed Anhua Zhouli Industry Co. Ltd. in Shenzhen, China.

M&G signals new Latin America plant for PET

M&G (Milan, Italy) has talked about expanding in South America since its acquisition in 2002 of Rhodia-Ster, the Brazil-based polyester resin and fibers supplier, from French owner Rhodia. At presstime, M&G had not revealed where it will locate its new facility, but M&G CEO Marco Ghisolfi said in January that the supplier would likely locate new South American capacity in Recife, Brazil if Brazil''s government would change fiscal policies that somewhat penalize foreign investment in the country. David swift, M&G marketing manager, notes that not all of those changes have been made and the supplier has looked at potential sites elsewhere.

M&G estimates that Brazil accounts for about half the 800,000-tonne/yr PET demand on the continent. In mid-2003, M&G''s most recently built plant, in Altamira, Mexico, began operating at its full 275,000-tonne/yr capacity; most of that is sold to processors in Central and North America.

Ghisolfi, in a statement, says the new plant will not make commodity PET but material aimed at higher-value applications. Swift says that higher performance materials could include material for packaging applications, such as the firm''s ActiTUF material for applications requiring gas-barrier, or even higher IV material for foamed PET as used in building and construction applications. Foamed PET is also commercial already in Europe for use in thermoformed trays, notes swift.

The new M&G plant will use technology that the firm says will enable it to produce material at lower cost. M&G is the world''s No. 2 PET supplier. Leading PET supplier Voridian, part of Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN), in September announced plans to build a 350,000-tonne/yr PET plant at its existing site in Columbia, SC. That plant, too, is to use new process technology to make PET at lower cost, and like the M&G site is to be online in 2006.

Wentworth seals alliance

Moldmaker Wentworth Mold Inc. (Hamilton, ON), part of Wentworth Technologies Co. Ltd., entered an alliance with Plastic Technologies Inc. (Holland, OH; Yverdon, Switzerland). The firms will work together to reduce mold delivery times by streamlining file transfer and further improving mold engineering and manufacturing processes. Wentworth already supplies PTI with its Fast-to-Market (FTM) molds and mold carriers.

Bayer taps compounder

Bayer MaterialsScience has commissioned GEBA Kunststoffcompounds GmbH (Ennigerloh, Germany) to compound Bayer''s Desmopan aliphatic thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU) for processing of decorative components in automobile interiors. Bayer expects demand to come from slush molders and blowmolders serving the automotive market.

Early this year, Bayer announced that its work with Tier 1 supplier Kautex Textron led to Desmopan grades suitable for coextrusion blowmolding (June 2004 MP/MPI). Previously, processing large-area TPU skins had proven uneconomical. According to Bayer, blowmolding TPU skins now is cost-competitive with PVC and aliphatic polyurethane. Kautex plans to market the skins under the name Blowskin with potential applications including skins for instrument panels and door trim.

The deal with GEBA makes brightly colored TPU compounds available, matching the industry''s trend for more color in car interiors. GEBA recently added a separate production shop intended specifically for compounding the new TPU material.

Ter Hell makes move

Ter Hell Plastics (Herne, Germany) has started supplying compounds via its new sales offices in Shanghai, Qingdao, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong to Chinese and other processors with facilities in the Far East. Also new is a cooperation agreement with Chinese compounder Su Chen (Suzhou).

Ter Hell says Su Chen has special know-how in producing styrene-butadiene styrene (SBS) and styrene-ethylene/butylenes-styrene (SEBS) compounds, which it "expects to use to expand our position in Europe."

Barrier films'' demand prompts purchases,

Winpak Ltd. of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, has added a third barrier sheet co-extrusion line from sheet extrusion systems manufacturer Processing Technologies, inc. (PTi) of Aurora IL, to meet increasing demand for barrier sheet in applications such as modified atmospheric packaging (MAP), controlled atmospheric packaging (CAP), extended shelf life and retort packaging, and others. The line will go into Winpak''s Chicago Heights, IL facility.

Dana Hanson, president of PTi, says that the "system is by far one of the world''s largest of its kind for producing complex barrier structures, if not the largest."

Hanson said the company also has plans to develop techniques for foaming specific layers within a complex structure including barrier applications.

MBO at Asano

The management of leading Japanese thermoforming machinery maker Asano Laboratories has undertaken a leveraged buyout of the firm from owner Tsukishima Kikai Co. Tsukishima acquired Asano in 1992 but is exiting the plastics processing machinery business.

Asano''s assets, liabilities, and the management were transferred to a special-purpose corporation (SPC) set up by Takumi Fund, itself a joint undertaking of Sanyo Electric Capital Co. and Japan Private Equity Co., effective the end of September. The management and Takumi Fund contributed equity to the SPC, which continues to operate unchanged under the Asano name.

Asano boasts a 100% share of the market for thermoforming machines used by Japanese refrigerator manufacturers. It is also a strong global player in the automotive, housing, and packaging sectors. It forecasts sales of ¥4.05 billion ($36.5 million) in the year to March 2005 and a profit of ¥4 million ($36,000).

Big plasma coating plans

Stretch blowmolding machine manufacturer SIG Corpoplast (Hamburh) and glass technology specialist Schott (Mainz, both Germany) have formed Schott SIG Barrier Technologies, a 50/50 joint venture to market from Mainz the firm''s jointly developed plasma coating technology for plastics packaging called Plasma Impulse Chemical Vapour Deposition (PICVD). PICVD can improve the gas-barrier performance of plastics. "Over the next three years, the revenue we achieve with coating modules will triple and make up a high double-digit-million Euro figure," predicts Udo Ungeheuer, chairman of the board of management at Schott. Corpoplast has exclusive marketing rights for the plastics industry for the coating modules, which Schott makes.Corpoplast markets the system under the name Plasmax.

Investing in education

Canon Communications LLC (Los Angeles, CA), parent company to Modern Plastics and sister publications Injection Molding Magazine and Plastics Machinery & Auxiliaries, has awarded the Plastics Engineering Technology school at Pittsburg State University (Pittsburg, KS) with $7700, recognizing the university''s effort to further the plastics industry. The magazines pooled ad sales from one issue to donate to a college-level plastics education program in the United States as part of its Education Matters program.

Pittsburg State''s name, mascot (the Gorillas), and plastics program may seem out of place given its location in an agricultural community of 26,000 in southeast Kansas, but since 1971, it has offered undergraduate and masters degrees in plastics, focusing on three areas: design, materials, and manufacturing.

Bob Susnik, an alumni with an undergraduate degree in plastics technology and a masters of science and technology, accepted the donation on behalf of the school. Plastics Engineering Technology coordinator for the last five years and professor since 1988, Susnik has seen the program grow from 25 students when he studied there in the early 1970s to some 165 students in 1999. That number has ebbed with the industry down to 100 currently, but Susnik says student interest remains. "It''s going to be a viable field for some time," Susnik says. "Right now we have 100% [job] placement [for graduates]."

Susnik says the gift is likely headed toward a mold to be used in the school''s lab.

Duncan to step down as SPI president

Leading the association through good times and bad, including record attendance at its flagship NPE event in June 2000 and the aftermath of the American Plastics Council split in the late 1990s, Don Duncan, president of Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) since February 2000, announced that he will retire in the first quarter of 2005. Duncan came to SPI after retiring from DuPont Dow Elastomers, where he served as president and CEO.

In Brief

Fortron''s NC capacity to expand by 30%


Fortron Industries, a joint venture between polymer producers Ticona and Kureha Chemical Industries, has approved a capacity increase, set to come on-stream by the end of the year, of 10% at its company''s Wilmington, NC polyphenylene sulfide plant. A second expansion phase, adding a further 20%, is scheduled for 2005.

Nucleator masterbatch

Milliken Chemical (Gent, Belgium) and processor Domo Polypropylene Compounds (Sint-Niklaas, Belgium) have jointly developed a nucleator masterbatch designed to save injection molders time and money. Marc Leyers, Domo''s sales manager for compounds, claims Tecnoline P1602N2N can reduce cycle times by as much as 30%.

Huntsman raising LDPE capacity

Who says demand for low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is dying? Not Huntsman (Salt Lake City, UT) at least, which has decided to build the world''s largest LDPE plant at Wilton, England. The 400,000-tonnes/yr facility, costing approximately £180 million ($324.8 million), is expected to be operational by 2007.

Arkema replaces Atofina


As part of a reorganization to improve its financial position, French oil and chemicals conglomerate Total (Paris) has reorganized its chemicals divisions, a move seen by market observers as a way for it to concentrate on its core oil and gas sectors and eventually divest the plastics business via a public offering. Total is the parent of Atofina, the former Elf Atochem. The name Atofina will eventually disappear.

In the reorganized chemical division, newly formed Total Petrochemicals will handle gas, oil, and the fertilizers businesses. A division, Total Specialties, will include specialty resins suppliers Cray Valley and Sartomer, Hutchinson (involved in rubber processing), Bostik for adhesives, and Atotech, which serves the electroplating market.

The remainder of the group''s businesses, including plastics and additives, are grouped under a new company, Arkema. This includes vinyl products such as PVC and PVdF, compounds, styrenics, polyolefins, elastomers, additives, urea formaldehyde thermosets, and engineering polymers. Just-appointed Arkema CEO Thierry Le Henaff expects his company to start independent operations by 2006, "depending on market conditions, and after informing/consulting with labor representatives."


PSA expands use of PP interiors...

PSA Peugeot Citroen (PSA) used last month''s Paris auto Show to unveil its new Citroen C4 and Peugeot 1007 models. Both vehicles make extensive use of polypropylene in their interiors. Tier 1 supplier Visteon processes the interior trim of both models, to include instrument panel, console, lower and upper trim and other interior components, using various Exxtral PP grades from supplier ExxonMobil Chemical. The instrument panels are formed using Exxtral BMT 106, a low-density, high-stiffness compound. Console and trim were molded of Exxtral BNU011, an unfilled PP grade.

...while Toyota grabs for PC/AES blend

Folding seat handles in the cargo area of the Toyota Corolla Verso are molded from a grade of Bayblend PC / AES (polycarbonate/acrylonitrile-ethylene-styrene) from supplier Bayer MaterialScience (Leverkusen, Germany). Notable is that the matte finish of the handles is achieved in-mold,with no need for further coating of the parts.

The handles are used to pull up retractable rear seating which transforms the car from a 2-seater with large cargo area to a 7-seat vehicle. Remvoing the need for coating custs costs. Heat resistance and mold flow behaviour are comparable to those achieved with PC/ABS blends. The handles, and all of the seating, are made at the turkish facility oif Japanese Tier 1 supplier Takanichi.

PlasticsEurope sees little future in futures market

Sales of polymer on the futures market as an attempt to overcome price spikes is not the way to go, says John Taylor (above), Borealis CEO and president of PlasticsEurope, the successor organization to the APME, the European resin makers'' association (Brussels). Ventures such as the proposed sale of PP and LLDPE futures contracts on the London Metal Exchange, which is set to launch next May, are not going to benefit processors nor promote the development of new materials that the market needs, he says.

Taylor says more dialog with customers is necessary for them to understand that resin makers have no alternative but to pass on price increases they receive from their raw material (crude oil and gas) suppliers. Processors have complained that the roller coaster ups-and-downs of the commodity resin markets do not allow them to calculate their upcoming costs nor in many cases to make a return on their investment. "We''ve seen more volatility on the polymer market in the last three years than in the previous 30," admits Taylor.

Extrusion: Inventive die designs raising the bar

Tough economic conditions plaguing the blown-film industry in developed regions have spurred renewed interest in technologies that allow processors to produce more niche products, more economically.

Last month''s K 2004 show in Düsseldorf offered a number of developments, many centering around die design, which are intended to allow processors to return to profitability. Changes in food packaging for single-individual households and spontaneous buying habits are driving this development, says Andy Barns, European sales manager for blown film at equipment maker Davis-Standard (Pawcatuck, CT).

"As markets dwindle for commodity products like shopping bags because of cheap Asian and Eastern European imports, film processors in developed regions are assessing their options in niche markets to sustain their business," he says. Many are turning to down-gauged, multilayer films using materials such as C8 linear-low-density polyethylene or metallocene PEs, as well as non-traditional materials such as PET, styrene-butadiene copolymer, high-melt-strength polypropylene, or polystyrene.

Easy does it

The new equipment offerings emphasize versatility, ease of maintenance, and improved output and quality. Adolfo Edgar, area sales manager at Macro Engineering (Mississauga, ON, Canada) says his company''s side die-fed, 300- to 550-mm-diameter MacroPack offers simplicity over previous models. In a seven-layer die there are only 13 major die components that operators need to remove for maintenance and cleaning.

"Unlike pancake dies, the MacroPack has a self-sealing effect due to its cone-like design. Far fewer bolts maintain leak-proof operations since the units nest in each other," Edgar says.

Equipment maker Addex (Stoughton, MA) says the further development of its REDI (REgular DIvision) die, introduced four years ago, also targets maintenance simplicity (March 2000 MP/MPI). Each ring has one less part to dismantle so maintenance and cleaning can be cut by up to 25%, says technical support manager Frankfurt Lübke. Similar to the REDI die, Hosokawa Alpine (Augsburg, Germany) is offering its redesigned K series die head where the melt is fed to the distribution ring, which sustains the flowing in a vertical rather than horizontal plane. This insures melt pressures remain stable and helps equal out flow and shear rates. Hosokawa Alpine''s General Manager, Technology, Franz Mahler, says the design not only helps reduce residence time by up to 20% but also makes cleaning faster.

Windmöller & Hölscher (Lengerich, Germany) presented the Maxicone die for its Varex blown-film extrusion lines that combines compact design, short melt-flow paths, and reduced residence times. The die geometry minimizes melt volumes and lowers melt residence times to gently handle critical barrier resins, says Robert Wirtz, general manger, extrusion equipment.

Small, but oh my!

Size does make a difference to Reifenhauser, especially in blown-film die height, according to Norbert Plewa, general manager, extrusion dies. This equipment maker presented at K 2004 its new HDS die with a 30% smaller overall profile than previous dies. "The HDS is a low-volume die, important when using expensive barrier resins where you want to use only the minimum to get the maximum amount of product without scrap," says Plewa. He says many of his customers are asking for dies that can produce smaller lots because their customers in turn are ordering less finished film at one time.

The HDS allows stripping and cleaning in 10 hours, including cooling time, compared to one week of lost production with traditional dies, Plewa says. This new die can be up to 20% cheaper for Reifenhäuser to produce since it has fewer parts than previous ones. The die plates use screws that don''t require special hydraulic tools to disassemble like conventional dies.

Davis-Standard''s Lo Pak die, a low-profile unit for easy access during maintenance, has been designed so that concentricity of the melt in the head can be evenly maintained to produce tighter tolerances, says Barns. Whereas five years ago processors might have to run their blown-film die at 120 µm to ensure 100-µm films sustain evenness, with the Lo Pak, the level of accuracy is far tighter. "This can mean a saving of up to 20% in resin costs," Barns says. Low profile also means a longer cooling path from the die head to the nip; bubble thread-up is easier and safer.

The nine-layer Optiflow LP (low profile) blown-film die from Battenfeld Gloucester (Gloucester, MA) stands about half the size of a conventional stack die, making installation, operation, and maintenance easier, says German Laverde, director, marketing. The die height can be reduced because the concentric mandrels, one for each layer, rest within each other.

Laverde says this design improves melt flow and reduces residence time, which equates into better film quality. Specially-designed flow-channel inserts are used in each mandrel feedport. Die components are machined from drop-forged, through-hardened alloy steel, and flow surfaces are nickel-plated to resist abrasion and corrosion.

Brampton Engineering (Brampton, ON) says its horizontal-flow SCD-3 coextrusion blown-film die has a small wetted surface area so the melt experiences shorter residence times. The small size of the flow passages in individual layers makes purging faster than previous designs. This die can process a wide variety of different-melt-temperature polymers because the flow rings around the die are temperature insulated. A temperature variation between layers of up to 40ºC is possible

Robert Colvin [email protected]

Contact information

Macro Engineering
Addex Inc.
Hosokawa Alpine
Windmöller & Hölscher
Battenfeld Extrusionstechnik
Brampton Engineering

One EPP processor hates electronics' 'guts'--in a good way

Can a plastics processor turn the entire electronics manufacturing industry on its head? Clearly that''s a major undertaking, but Ruch Novaplast thinks that E-PAC technology might be just the thing to do it.

Typically the interior components of computesr, printers, and other electronic goods are screwed, wired, or otherwise mounted onto a metal board within the good''s housing. Mounting all of these pieces is a huge logistical issue as well as very labor intensive; indeed, the labor costs of this manufacturing step are why so many plastics processors'' electronics customers from North America and Europe have fled to countries where low-wage labor can be hired.

But why bother with costly assembly? There''s no need, according to experts at Ruch Novaplast, in Oberkirch, Germany, one of many processors of expanded polystyrene and expanded polypropylene (EPS and EPP) packaging such as that used to wedge computers, printers, and other electronic goods tightly into boxes during shipping.

Serendipitous relationship

Ruch had the good fortune in the early 1980s to include Hewlett-Packard among its customers. The computer manufacturer asked the processor for use of its prototyping equipment for an idea some H-P engineers had.

The project went well and H-P was awarded a global patent in 1993 for the electronic packaging assembly concept (E-PAC) that it developed at Ruch. Global licensing of E-PAC is handled by the firm DMT (Holzgerlingen, Germany), which was spun-off from H-P in 1994 to handle further E-PAC development and licensing.

Ruch continued to invest in the process, and developed its own trademark, NOVAplex, to market its E-PAC systems. NOVAplex is a "chassis system for electronics that can replace metal," explains Melanie Kwella, marketing director at the processor. It is one of 10 processors with E-PAC licenses; there are six in Europe, two in the U.S., and one each in Japan and Singapore. A Korean processor also soon will acquire one, according to Tim Schwegler, marketing and sales director at DMT as well as one of the firm''s founders and developers of E-PAC. The two licensees in North America, SCA Packaging North America (formerly Tuscarora) and Foam Fabricators (formerly Premier Packaging), are two of the largest foam molders on the continent.

A beauty for plastics

The E-PAC solution is a beauty for plastics. Using it, all of the screws, wires, clips and metal boards that do nothing more than hold components in place in a finished good can be removed. Instead, the electronic good''s components and cables are mounted-either by hand or via robot-into a foamed EPP block, with cavities for the components cut in the block via CNC cutting equipment.

The EPP is fireproof, recyclable (Roch has its own recycling equipment) and can be made anti-static. The precision of the CNC-cut cavities ensures parts will not shift once they''re inserted into their pre-cut slots.

Kwelle notes the advantages for OEMs are many. "The EPP chassis saves space inside parts, opening up new design opportunities. It also saves weight, by a significant factor, and assembly is much faster since no screwing or wiring is involved," she says. As part of its offering, the processor offers to take over assembly at its facility in Oberkirch, Germany.

The advantages upon seeing a part using the NOVAplex system are obvious, which is why the processor is certain its system will transform a number of markets, including all manner of electronics goods, white goods, medical equipment, measuring systems, and others. Given a customer''s CAD drawings, Ruch Novaplast can develop an EPP chassis system suitable for a specific part in less than a week.

One area licensees are pursuing is E-PAC for laptop computers. The foamed plastic deadens sound, so that these computers'' fans would not be so obtrusive. The CNC cutting machine can bore ventilation holes in the foamed plastic to allow for the escape of heat, notes Schwegler, and to ensure a ventilating fan''s breeze is targeted where necessary, rather than needlessly blowing through an entire housing.

Moreover, the EPP provides insulation to sensitive electronic components against extremes of cold or heat; provides excellent protection to sensitive electronics and sensors in case a product is dropped or falls; and can be used at operating temperatures up to 110ºC. The tooling is inexpensive, and the prototyping rapid.

What''s the catch?

Of course, DMT and its licensees have been pushing E-PAC for just over a decade without yet radically changing the entire manufacturing world. There is, as Kwelle readily admits, a pretty huge stumbling block in the path of transforming an entire manufacturing industry. Electronics OEMs have spent millions, if not more, perfecting their assembly procedures based on screws, wires and other fastening devices. Few design engineers are willing to champion a switch from the tried-and-true assembly technique to one relying on formed, foamed EPP. "There is a lot of hesitation on their part, and questions about using plastics," she says.

Still, Schwegler sees growing interest and thinks E-PAC finally may gain mass-market use as engineers continue to grow more comfortable designing in 3-D CAD rather than traditional 2-D. DMT does not track exactly how many commercial products now are manufactured using E-PAC but Schwegler reckons there are about 100, based on the license reports he receives. The process has done especially well in equipment manufactured in low-to-medium quantities, such as medical defibrillators (made by H&P) and a network tester (from Agilent Technologies). DMT also sees a bright future for E-PAC in automotive parts as ever more electronics are used in cars.

But Schwegler, like Kwelle, agrees that before product development engineers will accept E-PAC, they must think much differently than they currently are accustomed to in terms of using metals or rigid plastics. "The move from 2-D to 3-D CAD did help us during the last years-but true three-dimensional thinking is still a challenge to many designers," notes Schwegler.

On top of that, typically there is no, or very little, knowledge about particle foam in design teams, he says.

To illustrate the blinders many designers wear, Schwegler cites one of the leading concerns DMT hears from potential customers: "The minimum wall thickness of EPP is 6 mm-my product will grow in dimensions-there is not enough space for E-PAC in our product." In fact, he explains, in most cases manufacturers using E-PAC can better use space so that, despite the minimum wall thickness, they end up with smaller products.

Exchanging metal and wire fasteners for EPP is a big step, but the person who successfully champions a good idea quickly becomes a company hero. Kwelle notes that the engineer at escalator and elevator manufacturer Otis (Berlin, Germany), who was able to convince his doubting colleagues to switch to the EPP chassis system for the firm''s elevator control boxes, now sits on the firm''s board of management. The volume of the control cabinet was reduced by 81%.

Schwegler expects E-PAC licensees, working with DMT, to further develop the system to allow for more assembly to be accomplished inmold, and to develop surface finishes to offer additional protection or cosmetic value. If it all comes to pass, then indeed, a manufacturing revolution, prompted by plastics, just might take hold.

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

Contact information


Format war pits HD-DVD against Blu-ray disc

With Hollywood forecasting DVD sales to start dropping in 2007 and increased competition from video-on-demand delivered over cable networks, the race is on to commercialize the next revenue-generating blockbuster format-high-definition DVD. Full-scale rollout of the new format is slated for late 2005.

But in a repeat of the Betamax versus VHS format war of the 1980s, two rival camps are pushing competing formats with little chance of a compromise. "One sure thing is that there will not be two surviving formats," says Bill Foster, senior technology consultant at market watcher Understanding & Solutions, Dunstable, UK.

Heading up the HD-DVD format camp are Japanese heavyweights NEC, Toshiba, and Sanyo. The disc structure (see table on page 29) is essentially an extension of existing DVDs, but with smaller pit size and track pitch. As the format employs advanced data compression techniques, disc capacity of 15 GB in a single layer and 30 GB using a double layer is more than sufficient for pre-recorded high-definition content equivalent to a movie plus bonus content, seen as the main application in the U.S., and recording of high-definition TV broadcasts in Japan, viewed as the primary use there, according to the format''s promoters

In the blue corner, meanwhile, is a group of 13 leaders in consumer electronics, computers, and media, including Philips, Sony, and Dell, known as the Blu-ray Disc Founders, which is a group formed in May 2002 to "pursue broad acceptance of the Blu-ray disc formats." The 25-GB/50-GB Blu-ray disc has a totally different structure from existing DVD formats. The data/recording layer resides on top of a 1.1-mm substrate that is covered with a .1-mm-thick, typically solution-cast or spin-coated polycarbonate film, plus a protective hardcoat.

The two new formats claim various merits. In the case of HD-DVD, existing production equipment can be employed with minor modifications. According to Japanese disc replicator Memory-Tech (Tokyo), production can be switched between DVDs and HD-DVDs in five minutes merely by changing the stamper and molding parameters to accommodate the tighter specifications. This is seen as a key merit of the format, given that DVDs and HD-DVDs are likely to coexist in the market for many years.

Similarities with existing DVDs have also seen replicators make rapid strides in ramping up production efficiencies. Memory-Tech achieved a 3.5-second production cycle for dual-layer HD-DVDs on an existing DVD line at its Kofu factory in August with greater than 90% yield, and it targets a sub-3-second production cycle on two new lines custom-configured for HD-DVDs that it installed in October. This would put production efficiency on a par with conventional DVDs. The lines cost only around $15,000 more apiece than standard DVD lines.

In terms of production costs, North American replicator Cinram International Inc. (Scarborough, ON) says that in the short term, while HD-DVD costs may be higher due to tighter tolerances resulting in slower cycle times, as the product matures, costs will approach that of DVDs. Toshiba, however, goes further, claiming that while initial manufacturing costs will be 10% to 15% higher than DVDs, they will decline to 5% to 10% higher in 2006 and match current DVDs three to four years from now.

"Future-proof" structure?

The disc structure of the Blu-ray format, meanwhile, requires new downstream equipment for bonding, coating, and inspection, as well as new mastering technology, although machine suppliers say existing DVD injection presses are more than capable of molding the 1.1-mm-thick substrates to the required tolerances. "A lot of replicators already have extensive experience in molding 1.1-mm-thick substrates as this is the minimum spec for CDs," notes Understanding & Solutions'' Foster. Moreover, the need for just one injection machine instead of two for HD-DVDs offsets the extra cost of downstream equipment for applying the cover layer and hardcoat according to Sony.

Furthermore, Philips notes that the tolerance on disc flatness is actually less stringent than for a conventional DVD as the data layer is closer to the surface. Overall, Sony says injection molding costs are lower due to the requirement to mold a single 1.1-mm substrate with noncritical optical characteristics.

But the proximity of the data layer to the surface is also a drawback in that scratches, fingerprints, and other contamination more readily affect data recording and reading. In fact, the first commercial recordable Blu-ray discs from Sony come in protective caddies. However, Philips and Sony claim that with advanced hardcoat technology, caddy-less Blu-ray discs will eventually be more robust than DVDs, both for scratches and fingerprints.

Cost-wise, Sony says it can pare manufacturing costs to around a 10% premium over DVDs assuming production of 10 million/month, yield of 90%, machine uptime of 90%, and cycle time of 4 seconds. Initial yields were 70%.

A 4-second cycle time has already been achieved at Sony Digital Audio Disc Corp. (Terre Haute, IN) on existing DVD injection machines. The firm has also confirmed existing sputtering equipment can be used. The current cycle for downstream processes for a dual-layer disc is 5 seconds. Despite this progress, replicators concur that the overall learning curve is steeper due to new downstream processes.

"The longer cycle time for Blu-ray discs is a limitation of the 1.1-mm substrate thickness," says Jose Fischli, application manager for optical discs at Netstal Maschinen AG (Naefels, Switzerland). Fischli adds that continuity and reliability will be words used more often in the future. "If the machine and the downstream are able to run without any stops or disturbances, the substrate yield will still be high [for the new formats]." Echoes machine supplier Meiki (Ohbu, Japan), "The technology level is there. The question will be, can you maintain repeatability over long production runs."

Despite its various cost and technical challenges, Blu-ray proponents stress their format is a truly significant step both in data capacity and data rate (which relates to image quality), rather than a [lower capacity] intermediate solution. "Smaller pit size means the data rate is 1.4 times that of HD-DVDs," says Philips.

They also stress that it is "future-proof." Four-layer discs with capacity of 100 GB have been produced in the laboratory and a road map exists for a 200-GB disc. According to the Blu-ray Founders'' website, "The format is designed to last for a period of at least 10 to 15 years. Due to its enormous storage capacity, short-term replacement of the technology is unnecessary, unlike other format proposals that might require less investment in advance, but higher investments in the long term due to the replacement of the technology when it becomes outdated."

Some, however, question whether such high capacities will ever be needed. Notes Haruhiko Noborisaka, manager of corporate planning at Memory-Tech, counters, "We can also produce a four-layer HD-DVD disc at much lower cost than that of a four-layer Blu-ray disk, but we believe it will not be commercialized."

So which format will eventually prevail? Dominick DellaVerde, senior director at replicator Cinram, says, "This will depend largely on studio preference. We''re trying to prepare to do either format." Incidentally, Blu-ray disc proponent Sony owns Columbia Tristar and recently acquired Hollywood''s last major independent studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for $5 billion.

Stephen Moore and Clare Goldsberry

Contact information

Blu-Ray Founders
GE Advanced Materials
Sony Digital Audio Disc
Understanding & Solution
AWM Mold Service

Material options

An interesting implication of the Blu-ray structure is that the substrate no longer plays an optical role-theoretically, it can be molded from any material that meets other physical requirements such as heat resistance and low moisture adsorption. Sony and Toppan Printing Co. (Tokyo), for example, have developed a 25-GB paper-based Blu-ray disc.

GE Advanced Materials (GEAM; Pittsfield, MA) notes that Blu-ray discs molded from PC have an asymmetrical structure that is prone to "dynamic tilt" under changing humidity conditions. "With standard PC, a moisture barrier needs to be sputtered on, which adds another process step," according to Matt Niemeyer, Technical Development Leader at GEAM''s Optical Media Development Center. GEAM is working toward using its Noryl mPPO material in Blu-ray disc substrates. Moisture adsorption is around 30% that of PC, and H2O swell strain is one-fifth. GEAM is also working with sister firm GE Silicones to develop a cover layer incorporating hardcoat functionality.

Clare Goldsberry

Molding the future of optical media

Whether or not the Blu-ray or HD-DVD format wins out in the race to become the next standard in optical media, the select group of moldmakers that serve this growing niche will gain business.

Currently, CDs are made from a 1.2-mm substrate while DVDs are created from two .6-mm substrates that are bonded together, requiring two tools. HD-DVD would also use two .6-mm substrates, but the micro and, in some cases, nano pits and tracks that store data on the discs surface will require much finer detail and new molds.

The Blu-ray discs, meanwhile, are currently 1.1 mm thick with a .1-mm film added, requiring another tool but offering a payoff in storage capacity. The new format could store 25 GB of data compared to .65 GB for CDs and 4.7 GB for DVDs.

But as storage capacity goes up, so, too, does the detail required in the mold-cavity inserts, or "stamps", that actually create the V-, A-, and U-shaped micro and submicro features where data are stored. To achieve such detail, AWM Mold Service-a Swiss-based toolmaker and subsidiary of adval tech Holding AG that has served this demanding market since the early-80s-employs an atomic force microscope with a maximum measure surface of 10 by 10 µm and the ability to view features as small as 2 to 3 nanometers.

Cranking out more than 3000 tools and joining the five shops that account for 95% of the world''s optical disc tools globally, AWM forecasts sales of prerecorded DVDs to hit 1 billion in the next one to two years, with half of those made in the U.S. and Japan. AWM''s Martin Osterode says outlooks like that and its market position keep the company going regardless of the disc format.

"You may remember the different formats that we used to have for video," Osterode says. "VHS, Video 2000, Betamax-they were competing with their products side by side. Eventually, VHS took over, but it took awhile, and we may see something similar with the next generation of optical discs."

Tony Deligio