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Articles from 2009 In November

Injection molding: Happy birthday, Ube Machinery Inc.

Complete details and specific dates will be announced in 2010. The company intends to highlight its UN series of all-electric machines, now available with clamp forces between 720-3300 tons. [email protected]

TPE North American resin pricing, Nov. 23-27: PE, PP, and PS steady

Polyethylene (PE) spot prices were mostly steady last week as contract negotiations continued, according to spot-trading platform The Plastics Exchange (TPE), and its reporting partner, The PetroChem Wire. Producers have proposed $0.04-$0.05/lb contract price increases for November, in addition to the $0.04/lb September increase. Some market participants said agreements had been reached to keep prices flat in November and delay any increases until December, while others said November pricing remained under negotiation. Looking forward, producers have also proposed a $0.03/lb increase in December contract pricing. In the spot market, price ideas mostly held steady, with generic-prime railcars of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) blowmold and injection grades discussed in the mid-$0.50s/lb range on a delivered basis. Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) film, butene grade, traded at a $0.015-$0.02/lb premium, and remained particularly tight. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) film, clarity grades, were in the low $0.60s/lb range. PE exports continued to move from the Gulf Coast in November, with generic-prime railcars of HDPE blowmold transacting in the high $0.40s/lb, and LLDPE film butene in the low $0.50s/lb FOB Houston.

Polypropylene (PP) spot prices were steady from the week prior’s levels, with buyers actively bidding for spot material amid low inventories and rising propylene monomer prices. In the contract market, producers issued increase announcements of $0.06-$0.07/lb for December implementation. Market participants said that PP contract prices were up about $0.03/lb in November. PP availability remained limited last week, as traders and converters sought spot material for delivery before the start of December in the face of tight supply and rising costs. Generic-prime railcars of homopolymer PP in the domestic market were in the high $0.50s/lb range, with copolymer PP at a $0.015/lb premium. Impact copolymers were particularly tight, participants said. PP export demand from the Gulf Coast continued to be thin, with current asking prices for generic-prime homopolymer PP in the low $0.50s/lb range FOB Houston.

Polystyrene (PS)
spot prices were largely unchanged from a week earlier, with generic-prime railcars of high-impact PS in the low $0.70s/lb and general-purpose PS in the mid $0.60s/lb. In the contract market, producers sought increases of $0.03/lb in November. [email protected]

Industry down, clearly, but plastics’ long-term future still bright

Held in Frankfurt, Germany in mid-September, the IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung) remains the world’s largest car show, but this year’s version showed the signs of the prevailing market conditions.

Almost 30% fewer exhibitors booked space, with some leading brands—Honda, Mitsubishi, and Nissan—passing on the event. Compared to the previous show in 2007, this year’s also was tellingly absent of many top Tier One and Two suppliers. The ones who did exhibit were not shy to say that their presence proved their support of the industry, naturally, and despite the sales slowdown, it remains a mammoth market. Many at the event commented that in fact sales in Asia and India hit a minor bump in late 2008 but just kept going. In Europe and North America, car demand may turn worse in 2010 as the artificial impetus of various “cash for clunkers” programs runs its course.

Rhodia’s Jean-Claud Steinmetz (left) and Hubert Ruck, OEM global account manager: Still plenty of opportunity for PA.

Johnson Controls’ instrument cluster for the BMW
5 series.

Mann+Hummel’s second-generation oil filter module will integrate more components.

In 2007 the mega-trend at the IAA was reduced carbon dioxide emissions, at the time very much under the microscope as then-pending European Union regulations (since watered down) were expected to force drastically improved gas mileage requirements on carmakers. With green carpeting, wallpaper, and mood lighting the prevailing shade at the 2009 IAA, there was no overseeing the “environmentally responsible” marketing movement at many exhibitors’ booths, punctuated by the display of more alternative-energy vehicles than likely are actually on the road in Frankfurt.

For plastics processors, alternative energy for car propulsion could eventually prove a bonanza, opined experts at two plastics suppliers, Rhodia and Lanxess, competitors in the polyamide market. At Rhodia (Lyon, France), Jean-Claud Steinmetz, VP automotive/transportation for nylon (PA6 and PA66), predicted that hybrid gas/electric engines would be good for his company and its processing customers, as the smaller gas engines in these often run at higher temperatures and with a turbocharger, prompting the need for high-heat-stable plastics.

Jürgen Selig, application development manager, transportation, for semicrystalline materials at Lanxess’s R&D facility in Dormagen, Germany, sees opportunity on the battery-powered side of the engine as well. The company is working on a molded hybrid plastic/metal development for a circa 70-kg battery, he said, with the plastics key to parts integration. He also expects the surge of interest in electric cars to develop into proving grounds for flame-retardant thermoplastics. “Not much can go wrong with a 12V battery, but with the powerful ones being developed, flame retardancy will be critical,” he noted.

Lanxess continues to see application potential for hybrid plastic/metal structures, a field it helped develop. In 2008, said Selig, 78 different cars were fitted with hybrid front ends molded with the supplier’s Durethan polyamide. Newly designed versions using PA with 60% glass-fiber reinforcement, double that on most now commercial, will reduce the front end’s weight by almost 40%, he said. He says such hybrid moldings also are finding their way into other parts of the car, notably door panels and dashboards. “In about 2011 there will be commercial applications of both of these,” he said.

In a car’s fuel tank and fuel transport system, Steinmetz sees a potential growth area for PA, especially for small city cars, hybrid vehicles, or those running ethanol or other bio-fuels. Polyamide from Rhodia is already being blowmolded for single-layer motorcycle fuel tanks, and he said ongoing tests “look promising” for PA’s use in monolayer tanks for cars running bio-fuel. Smaller cars could be made much lighter if fuel tanks carried only 40 liters (about 10.6 gal) of gas, he said, and at that size a monolayer blowmolding may make more economic sense and be just as efficient in combating emissions as the multilayer PE/EVOH tanks currently used.
Oil filter modules learning new tricks
Tier One supplier Mann+Hummel (Ludwigsburg, Germany) commercially introduced the first plastic modules some five years ago, and since then these PA moldings have made significant inroads into what was once exclusively a stamped aluminum application. The first of what the tier supplier is calling its second generation of oil filter modules is already being installed commercially on BMW’s new six-cylinder inline diesel engines, molded with PA66 with 35% glass-fiber reinforcement.

A prototype of this second generation of thermoplastic oil filter modules was displayed at M+H’s stand at the IAA and included an integrated oil filter housing and filter, an oil pump integrated into the molding, and a newly developed filter with an anti-drain membrane that can reduce the anti-drain pressure by a factor of 10, thus increasing the efficiency of the oil pump, according to Pius Trautmann, director of fluid filter development.

Rhodia’s Steinmetz said the first oil pans using his company’s PA66 are entering commercial use on Mercedes’ new 2.2-liter diesel sedans. “Every OEM is looking at plastic oil pans,” he noted. One of the few tier suppliers exhibiting, ElringKlinger (Dettingen, Germany), displayed some of the PA oil pans it has developed next to the firm’s more established aluminum ones.

The most formidable tier supplier stand belonged to Johnson Controls, where officials also shared that the company expects to at least break even for the year. In what the Tier One supplier says is a world novelty, it is negatively thermoforming 3D instrument cluster panels for BMW using a black sheet it developed that allows warning lights and other displays to brightly shine through it, with no sign of distortion and no need for a secondary anti-reflective coating. The parts also show no sign of polarization at their sharp edges. 

Patrick Nebout, director of product management and strategic planning for Johnson Controls’ Global Driver Information unit, told MPW that by placing the film face down in the tool, the texture of the tool gives the film’s surface an embossed structure that eliminates the need to add an anti-reflective coating to the surface of the cluster. The result is an instrument cluster with much sharper resolution. 

He also said the company has optimized its thermoforming so as to reduce the reflection/interference known as Newton’s rings at the sharp thermoformed edges between the flat printed analog speedometer and tachometer, and the surrounding digital information display.

The company showed off a broad range of instrument clusters, most of them drawing attention to the individual “looks” it can achieve on injection molded decorative rings that could be added to, for example, the speedometer to give it a carbon-fiber-printed surface appearance or a chrome appearance. “This lets our customers differentiate their brands without a big investment,” explained Nebout. Also on display were some prototypes revealing how the instrument cluster of the future might appear, with a TFT (thin film transistor) display integrated into the speedometer and tachometer so that a driver would see not only speed or RPMs but also entertainment system information, navigational advice, and more.
Johnson Controls has been actively processing natural-fiber-reinforced plastics for more than 50 years, but took this experience to the next level with a concept car it displayed at the IAA on which almost all of the visible interior surfaces were processed from these materials. The look was actually quite attractive, a clear step down the value chain from real wood surfaces, but nonetheless as attractive or more so than standard polypropylene and ABS interior components. The company’s PP Thin Film, a cast multilayer structure, is used to protect the natural-fiber-reinforced surfaces from scratching and from fading/discloration caused by the sun’s rays.

It seems likely, based on these and other discussions, that plastics processors still have many opportunities in the automotive market, and that car OEMs’ own financial travails could create opportunities for those processors with the financial and technical wherewithal to be chosen for these forward-looking projects. Matt Defosse

Marketing is critical in a 
down economy

When the going gets tough, the tough implement marketing plans! A marketing plan includes a variety of company promotion vehicles including brochures, advertising in trade magazines that serve the markets you serve, attending trade shows and conferences, and the all-important website.

You can never assume that customers will find you and come knocking at your door—or website. It takes a lot of work to drive them to where you want them to go, and then to be able to meet their needs. Developing your brand is key to getting customers to understand what makes your company and its products and services different from the others who do nearly the same thing you do.

Developing a brand is easy when your brand name is on the packaging. It’s more difficult, however, when your package is merely the container of the brand owner’s products. That was the dilemma facing Flex Products (Carlstadt, NH). “We didn’t have a brand,” says Ed Friedhoff, who became co-owner of the company in 1990. “Our customers put their products into our packaging to go to market, so the Flex Products brand just wasn’t visible. The result was that the company wasn’t growing to its full potential.”

Flex Products branded its containers to gain recognition in the marketplace.
Friedhoff’s previous business was in soft drinks, a product that is marketed directly to the end user, so the company’s brand was clearly visible. “When we bought Flex Products, we were not marketing to the end user anymore, but to someone that uses your products in their product. This was total culture shock,” he states.

Flex Products is supplier of custom and proprietary packaging, whose processes include injection molding, extrusion, and thermoforming. It manufactures containers, caps, closures, and myriad parts that go into products ranging from medical devices to automobiles, skateboards, tractors, and roller blades. But no one ever “sees” the molder or identifies with its “brand.”

That’s the dilemma facing many custom molders. As suppliers to the OEM manufacturers, their “products”—the components, parts, containers, etc.—are hidden within the OEM’s product with nothing to indicate the company responsible for these components.

However, developing a brand is critical to getting OEMs to find your company and develop a supplier relationship. A big part of that brand development is differentiation. Flex found a way to improve its sales and drive more traffic to its website, a critical tool in helping with that differentiation. When Flex Products discovered that an increasing number of prospects were turning to the Web to find packaging providers, the company decided it had to rise to the challenge of this new competitive arena. It had no way of knowing how many potential buyers were considering Flex, how many were bypassing it because the company was practically invisible online, and, of course, how many opportunities it was losing as a result.

The company responded quickly to this new phenomenon and put up a basic website as a Band-Aid approach, and in the process discovered that a website that doesn’t work very well isn’t much better than no website at all. “It was performing very sluggishly, and seemed to be holding the company back,” notes Friedhoff. “Flex was nowhere to be found when prospects searched for the kinds of products it provided.” In short, Flex Products offered abundant product options to its customers, but its limited approach to online sales and marketing threatened the company’s future expansion.

“We wanted to provide an online experience that would attract buyers and keep them engaged until they got in touch with us,” says Friedhoff. “Since so many of Flex Products’ customers place nonstandard orders, the goal of the website was to get them to reach for the phone, ask additional questions, and then make a purchase.”

Friedhoff says that developing an effective website can be daunting, especially for the custom aspects of the company’s products. “People who come to us for custom items often don’t realize what is involved in making these,” Friedhoff explains. “We find that we have a lot of customers that might want our packaging, but need something done to it that’s extra, such as modifying one of our closures into something unique. For that, I need to talk to the customer. It might not be able to be done the way they think it can be done. That’s where flexibility comes in and I want our website to show that we’re very flexible and accommodating in meeting the needs of customers through our inventory of tooling. As our site evolves, we’re putting more emphasis on this flexibility and the idea of mass customization.”

It’s critical to getting new business to create a way for the customer to understand this flexibility so that they will pick up the phone and engage with your sales personnel, no matter what their needs are. “Bottom line, you don’t want the customer to go somewhere else, so either I can do it or I can source it,” says Friedhoff. “It’s key to get the customer to stay with me rather than stumbling upon one of my competitors.”

The company supplemented this content strategy by appearing on ThomasNet
.com, which millions of industrial purchasers and engineers use every month, and used ThomasNet’s tracking tools to monitor leads and conversion rates. ThomasNet evaluated the company’s business goals and reviewed the website, making suggestions and then rebuilding it. Then, ThomasNet implemented a complete overhaul to turn it into a robust prospecting and sales tool. For the first time in its history, Flex knew what kinds of buyers were coming to its website, the companies they were from, where they clicked, and what actions they took. And very quickly, the numbers of paying customers proved their strategy right.

Getting ThomasNet involved with the process provided Flex Products with a new approach to making its website an effective selling tool that involved adding content, refining existing online information, and adding simple navigation features, product specs, and comparison capabilities. The original site needed more detail to be effective, including better product descriptions, features for searchability by multiple categories, and product images to make it easy for prospects to gain an immediate understanding of the kinds of packaging and containers available.

“Our goal was to be informative and succinct, so people could quickly see what we offered without getting lost in technical language. If they clicked to view our containers, they could find pictures of products that were round, square or rectangular,” explained Friedhoff. “They’d seen how easy it was to order a basic package, to decorate it, or to thread it with a screw cap. Every possibility was laid out in an easy-to-use, inviting way.”

The results: Flex Products realized more than 20% sales revenue growth to more than $10 million, and is now doing international business, which contributes to about 6% of sales. The new marketing/sales program and enhanced website has also opened up new market niches for the company, including the demand for products from recycled plastics. Recycline is a company that makes razors and toothbrushes from recycled plastic products, and Flex provides packaging for Recycline’s products. Additionally, search engine referrals for Flex Products have tripled since 2005 and Web conversion actions such as catalog pages viewed and requests for additional information have increased eightfold.

“While Flex has a minimal sales force, the new rules of the road for industrial selling make it less essential to have a larger sales team to find new business,” says Friedhoff. “The new Flex Products site serves as a very reliable and effective 24/7 sales department. We’re watching the numbers to make sure that the site continues to perform beyond our expectations. The ability to monitor results is putting Flex Products in the driver’s seat to move toward additional growth in the years ahead.”

ThomasNet’s help for 
industrial businesses is the Internet evolution of Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, the industrial suppliers’ guides that were ubiquitous in purchasing agents’ offices for about 100 years. This online destination enables buyers from large and small companies, the government and military, and more to search among 607,000 suppliers of industrial and business products, from adhesives to machine parts. In addition, ThomasNet helps individual industrial companies improve their websites to penetrate new markets, attract new customers, improve efficiency, and ultimately increase revenues. ThomasNet helps those suppliers replicate the sales cycle online. That includes making the first contact, providing the needed information to the potential buyer, and connecting the buyer and seller to make the sale.

Travis Sherbine, senior director of marketing and sales support for Web solutions at ThomasNet, notes that buyer expectations are continually becoming higher. “When industrial buyers go online to look for an injection molder, they have the same expectation as they do when they go on Amazon. They expect to find detailed information,” he says.
The traditional sales process for injection molding is one in which a lot of consulting and educating goes on between the OEM’s engineering staff and the molder’s or moldmaker’s engineering team. That sales process—that high level of consultation and education that used to happen on the phone and/or in person—today, ThomasNet’s research shows, happens online. “The companies who have the best competitive advantage are the ones who serve the customer in that consultative, educating way. Those are the companies whose phones are still ringing today,” Sherbine states.

Sherbine adds that the first step in ThomasNet’s process is to help people understand the necessity of a website. “Many companies have modest websites or no websites,” Sherbine says. “In today’s marketplace, you have to have an effective online presence. From buyer studies that we have conducted, we know that 73% of buyers research three to five suppliers before they decide who to go to for the purchase.”

Susan Orr, senior director of strategic marketing, says that in replicating the sales process, all the same considerations are employed. Who are the contacts? How many contacts need to be made? How many in-person visits? What questions are buyers asking? “We follow that process online,” she says. “All the things that they used to engage with customers in the past has to be present on the website. All those conversations and information requests that used to happen offline are now online.”

The big difference is that with online sites, buyers and prospects are anonymous. However, from a basic marketing perspective, the seller is meeting a need. Knowing the potential customer’s needs is key, “but because you don’t know them you definitely need to be there with the online content,” says Orr. “Prospects only have about 5-8 seconds to evaluate a particular company’s website and see if the company will meet their needs, which means the site’s home page is critical.”

ThomasNet has a system to help industrial suppliers establish effective websites. They call it the VSET method.
Verify. The potential customer lands on the home page of a company and in that first 5-8 seconds that the customer looks at the site, he determines if this company can supply what he needs. “We help educate customers in how to use the Web by tying back to traditional selling processes, such as answering a question that might be asked if a person were to call into your company,” Sherbine says. “‘Do you do injection molding?’ might be the first question a caller asks. The answer to that initial question should be found on the first page that a potential customer sees.”

Search. The education process continues in the search process. “‘Do you do engineering polymers?’ might be the next question,” says Sherbine. “‘Do you build your own tools in house?’ might be another next logical question. Does your site accommodate that search for the answers to these questions? Additionally, can someone who lands on your site search and in multiple ways? That’s another key to making your website accessible.”

Evaluate. Once the potential customers’ initial questions have been answered, they need more information to evaluate the company on a deeper level. A molder might list material types, mold types, press sizes, tolerances, quality standards, or a catalog of capabilities, the types of work they’ve done for previous customers. It’s the detailed information that will help a potential customer evaluate whether or not they should contact you in person or send an RFQ or part print.

Take action. Sherbine explains that an effective website is one that gives people who come to the site every opportunity to buy from you. Every page should contain the phone number and a “Contact Us” link. “Companies should take advantage of every opportunity for someone to share your information with a colleague and to forward it from the engineer to the purchasing manager, for example. This could even include uploadable CAD drawings of the products,” says Sherbine. “This is the closing-the-sale area.”

To help companies make changes to their sites based on prospects’ behavior when they visit particular pages, ThomasNet provides a reporting service with its Web solutions. The reporting is critical, Sherbine notes. “We provide Web Traxs as well as some other tracking solutions. It’s a tool you can use to manage and understand what’s working and not working, whether you need more or better content,” he explains. “Tracking is critical and clients have discovered new markets just by what prospects are searching for and doing online. We help you manage the Web just as you would your salespeople.”

Sherbine adds that in talking to industrial companies, one thing is clear: “The world of the Internet can become overwhelming, but it boils down to, what is your sales process? How do you get that online?” he says. “Then you have to monitor it, make improvements on it, and view it as an ongoing tool for the business, and you’ll get amazing results.” Clare Goldsberry

As China targets universal healthcare, a massive market emerges

The medical device sector in China is set for solid growth given the Mainland government’s pledge to provide essential healthcare.

China’s current healthcare system is two-tiered, with adequate and often world-standard healthcare available in urban areas, while many rural areas have very little provision. That’s about to change, in the midterm at least, with the recently announced government initiative to provide universal access to essential healthcare for all in China by 2020. The initial intent is to spend $124 billion between 2009 and 2011 to lay a solid foundation for this, and this is sure to boost demand for medical devices, a market that there was valued at $4 billion in 2008, or less than 2% of the global market for about 20% of the global population.

GW Plastics’ Riehl: Medical device manufacturers want trusted supply sources in China.

Sunta Plastics’ Gao: Global-standard medical devices from China.
China’s government has its own plans to champion domestic high-tech medical device manufacturers and reduce its reliance on imported devices. Currently, it is home to an estimated 12,500 device manufacturers making everything from bandages to CT scanners. Numerous multinational device makers have a presence in China primarily to access the local market, typically in the form of joint ventures or technology licensing.

Processors speaking to MPW at the recent Medtec show in Shanghai, organized by the magazine’s owner Canon Communications, indicated that despite the strong growth prospects, potential players—be they local or foreign—need to be aware that the same stringent global standards apply to medical manufacturing when doing business in China.

Global standards
Nypro Inc. (Clinton, MA) operates four ISO 13485-certified plants in China (in Suzhou, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Tianjin) and says that such certification is a must in order to sell back into the U.S. and European markets. “The focus of our customers is definitely risk mitigation,” notes Jason Durkin, director of market development. “They also want to work with known entities.”

While projects are often transferred from Europe and the U.S., there are some that start with development in China. Nypro, for example, has a joint venture design affiliate called Radius Product Development in Beijing that has worked on projects in oral healthcare and in developing a glucose meter.

Contract molder GW Plastics Inc. (Bethel, VT) says its clients in China are the same as those it serves in the U.S. “They have a sense of security by doing business with someone that they are familiar with. They know we have the quality systems and a strong management team in place,” says president and CEO Brenan Riehl. GW Plastics focuses its business development efforts on customers who require a high level of service quality and “on customers who know us, rather than being overly opportunistic.”

Currently, 75% of GW Plastics’ global business is for medical applications, and the aim is to raise the ratio to at least 50% in China from the current level of less than 20%. Two machines currently operate in the cleanroom at its Dongguan plant in southern China, and there will be four more within a year. “We don’t treat Dongguan as a separate factory,” says Riehl. “It’s fully integrated [with our U.S. plants], and customers don’t see a big difference except that there’s a lot of Chinese staff at our Chinese plant.”

GW Plastics’ technology transfer is not a one-way street; for instance, the Chinese side may come up with a simpler way of putting together a tool that is more cost effective. “Having said that, medical is a business where you just cannot make shortcuts,” emphasizes Riehl.

A newcomer to the device market in China is Rosti Integrated Manufacturing Solutions (Suzhou), which is in the process of rolling out medical molding services in China after having been active in the business for 15 years in Europe. The processor has just reached contractual agreement with a large European multinational to supply medical devices from its Chinese facility. The company has been in China since 2001 as a molder of business equipment and, more recently, automotive parts.

Rosti will be implementing ISO 13485 standards in China within the next 12 months. According to regional director of sales Karl Stillman, “At Rosti, we are running a good clean operation, and are operating to ISO 9001 and TS 16949 standards, and so have the capability required to reach ISO 13485 within 12 months. Our plan is well under way,” he says.
Stillman feels that global medical device manufacturers will ideally stick to a global sourcing approach when they come to China. He also notes that financial stability is highly sought after in processors these days given the turmoil the global processing industry has experienced of late. “We understand that some of our customers now run internal courses on how to detect potential bankruptcy in their supply chains. Being part of the AP Moller Maersk Group gives our customers and potential customers the confidence that they are dealing with a financially secure partner,” he adds.

Price right
While the medical device market may look attractive, Univac Precision Plastics (Shanghai) Co.’s Lee Oon Thai, business development manager, cautions that strong growth may not necessarily translate to strong profits. “Like any business, you need to run a lean operation to enjoy profits because you have higher costs associated with cleanrooms, quality control, and documentation,” he says. “Many processors diversifying into medical are not aware of these costs and may end up under-quoting jobs.”

“Sometimes the medical validation cost is higher than the total cost of producing the product,” says Brady Tong, Asia sales and marketing manager for Minnesota Precision Products (Su Zhou) Ltd. (Jiangsu Province). “For example, it might cost $170,000 for validation and you’re only making 4000 or 6000 pieces per year.” Minnesota Precision’s China facility insert molds surgical tools using liquid silicone rubber (LSR), and plans to introduce bi-component molding capability by the end of 2010.

Local lights
Recognizing bright prospects for the medical device sector, plastics supplier Bayer MaterialScience (Leverkusen, Germany) has experts located at its Shanghai tech center to support development and design, according to Marina Lee Chui Wa, marketing manager, Asia Pacific, for polycarbonate. The company is already assisting local device manufacturers to produce global-standard products. Foshan Nanhai Baihe Medical Tech Co. (Guangdong Province), for example, molds a three-way stopcock for fluid infusion control using a radiation-stabilized Makrolon PC grade that is also liquid stabilized and lipid resistant. “This ensures no blockages, even with a flow diameter of less than 1 mm,” says Lee. Another device from a local company is a blood segregation system from Xi An Zhengyuan (Shaanxi Province) molded from clear, impact-resistant Makrolon PC. “Impact resistance is required because the device is used in a centrifuge,” explains Lee.

A third local medical molder climbing up the technology tree is Sunta Plastics Enterprise Co. (Zhuhai, Guangdong Province), which has traditionally thermoformed housings for medical equipment from flame-retardant ABS resin. Sales manager Paul Guo says Sunta is now thermoforming sterilization trays for orthopedic equipment from polyphenylsulfone (PPSU) sheet supplied by Ensinger (Nufringen, Germany: Tecason P VF sheet) and Evonik Degussa (Essen, Germany: Europlex PPSU sheet). The base polymer is Radel from Solvay Advanced Polymers (Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands).

These local lights and their foreign-invested peers have one thing in common. They see a bright future for the medical device segment in China and concur that only the best in product quality and reliability will do for both global and local markets. Stephen Moore

State-of-the-art applications depend on composite innovations

Composiflex is out to prove that thermoset plastics can lock horns with and add value to some of the most demanding applications on the market today.

The processor of high-performance composites for the medical device, recreational equipment, aerospace, armor/security, ballistics, and military market is seeing high demand in a number of fields, particularly in equipment for hospitals and personal protection sectors, says company president Alan Hannibal. “Even in poor financial times as we have experienced at the beginning of 2009, we are still seeing customers who are investing in product development. We are doing more business in this sector than ever before,” Hannibal says. “This says to us that these customers want to be prepared when the economy is back in full swing.”

Larry Yaple, engineering manager, here before an autoclave being loaded, says deliveries for nuclear medicine have become a big market for the company, with demand growing up to 5%/year.
Composiflex, which next year will expand into a 55,000-ft2 facility at its Erie, PA headquarters, provides a variety of composite processing technologies, including press and autoclave curing, filament winding, vacuum bagging, and resin transfer molding. “Key for us is to offer customers a one-stop shop from design to delivery,” says Hannibal. “Customers today don’t just want delivery of product, but ready-made assembled goods from a single source.”

Epoxy with glass or carbon-fiber reinforcement accounts for much of the material processed at the company. For ballistics and armor plate applications, the company uses aramid fiber such as Twaron from Teijin Aramid. More than 35% of the company’s output is exported. Larry Yaple, engineering manager at Composiflex, says many of the products codeveloped with customers are metal-to-composite transitions, such as a motorcycle fender that, when switched to thermoset plastics, reaped the customer a 40% weight savings.

Two years ago the company brought onto the market a special ballistic shield that maximizes user protection. Hannibal says traditional ballistic shields have smaller view ports with limited visibility; soldiers or law enforcement personnel have difficulty simultaneously viewing and aiming. Composiflex’s HG series of Level IIIA shields includes view ports that run the width of the shield to give a continuous field of view. The units are fabricated using aramid materials and weigh about 17 lb (7.7 kg).

In the medical device sector, the processor works closely with customer GE Healthcare in designing and delivery of patient fixation systems for tables used for diagnostic imaging. The slab tables made of modified Rohacell-brand closed-cell polymethacrylimide (PMI) rigid foam from Evonik Industries are then laid up with carbon fiber skins. “Stiffness is most critical but we are finding that as the population becomes increasingly fatter, strength has turned out to be essential,” Hannibal says. A single medical table generally takes 6-10 hours to produce by hand, followed by 4 hours of autoclave curing.

The company, which started in 1986, has a staff of 65 with a high percentage of women working on the hand lay-up shop floor. “All the fibers are oriented by hand. Our experience has proven that women are better at this job than men because they show patience and exactness to produce a quality product in this sector,” Yaple says. The company also offers contract water jet cutting services.

Although this year has seen about a 40% drop in demand for one of the company’s key products, the FlexPly composite spring, Yaple expects demand to return to high levels when financially strapped companies start investing in production equipment again. The E-glass/epoxy, carbon/epoxy, and high-temperature glass/epoxy springs offer a higher service life and can be a direct replacement for competitive vibrator springs. The future remains bright for composites, reckons Hannibal. [email protected]

PET sheet system eliminates crystallization, drying

A polyethylene terephthalate (PET) sheet system precludes drying and provides throughputs of 2000 lb (900 kg) per hour with lower overhead compared to non-vented extrusion processes. Utilizing Davis-Standard LLC (D-S; Pawcatuck, CT) engineering and project management, and winding with a Multi Rotation System (MRS) extruder from Gneuss Inc., the collaborative result aims to replace single-screw extruders currently used to process post-consumer or industrial flake PET.

Davis-Standard and Gneuss have joined forces and equipment for a PET sheet system that can extrude PET without having to crystallize and dry the material.
In the conventional setup, moisture and volatiles must be removed through drying so that the polymer chain doesn’t break down during the melt phase. In order to be dried, the feedstock must be crystallized to withstand elevated temperatures. Gneuss and D-S point out that crystallizing and then drying PET not only takes time, but requires more energy, equipment, and plant space.

With the new technology, a blender combines post consumer or industrial flake PET with virgin pellets from each component’s blender hopper in one step. Once blended, the resin is vacuum conveyed to the feed throat of the MRS extruder for processing, without having to crystallize or dry the material.
Gneuss says the operations of its MRS extruder are comparable to the vent section of a single- or twin-screw extruder where melt-stream degassing occurs under precise vacuum control. In the case of the MRS, however, the degassing section is much larger, surpassing the surface exchange of a twin screw by 25 times and a single screw by 50 times and making it possible to remove moisture and volatiles in the melt stream more efficiently.

Among the advantages to be gained, the companies say, is that a more moderate vacuum level can be applied, enabling processors to use less-expensive and easier-to-maintain vacuum equipment. In addition, the melt undergoes low shear and thermal stress; strong pressure build-up can eliminate the need for a gear pump; and overall less energy and space are required. FDA approval for processing PET bottle flakes is pending.

In addition to the blender loader hopper and the MRS, the system includes a Gneuss RSFgenius melt-stream filter, an inline viscometer, an online X-ray gauging system, a roll stand with independent roll-speed control, and a turret winder for 48-inch diameter rolls weighing more than 5000 lb (2200 kg). The system utilizes D-S’s EPIC closed loop winder control. The system was engineered so that finished sheet can be fed directly into a thermoformer's shaping trays for use with fresh food items like strawberries and tomatoes. [email protected]

Blowmolding: Processor’s development raises the bar for heat-set bottles

Developments in blowmolded bottles for heat-set bottles have been a hot sector of late. Processor Liquid Container (West Chicago, IL) has weighed in with what it calls its ThermaSet line. Improved clarity and less shrinkage are two of the benefits promised.

The line of stock and custom jars, available with wide mouths or standard openings, is said by the processor to be the first to offer sustained hot-fill performance at 205°F (96°C), so that the bottles can see use for filling of viscous food items (apple and pasta sauces, jams and jellies, and tomato-based products) which tend to fill at higher temperatures. Hot filling generally is done at temperatures of 90-95°C for 15-30 seconds. If more time is needed, PET tends to soften, creating problems for fillers. Liquid Container says its ThermaSet bottles handle the heat for longer, easing package fillers’ concerns.

The proprietary process developed by Liquid Container increases PET’s glass transition point, which is about 70°C (exact Tg is affected by a material’s molecular weight, thermal history, and more). The end result is sustained thermal stability at 205ºF and shrinkage of less than 1%, claims the processor. Typical PET container shrinkage following the thermal cycle is between 1.5-4%. Shrinkage can cause seals to break and thus lead to spoilage of products or reduction of a product’s shelf life. It also impacts labeling of packages.

According to Mark Schneider, senior director of the processor’s PET technology group, the company’s development is process-based and not material-specific. In answer to questions from MPW, he wrote, “We use standard bottle-grade PET resins, which can be obtained from all of the major PET suppliers. There are no resin additives or enhancers used in our process to increase thermal performance characteristics. Our proprietary process, which changes the thermal characteristics PET, involves all aspects of molding the finished article. This involves, but is not exclusive to, molding the preform, preform design, reheating, conditioning and stretch blowing.”
The benefits continue: “Depending on container design, we are experiencing between 8-19% improvement in oxygen barrier performance,” added Schneider. He credits this improvement to an improved crystalline structure of the material being processed through the company’s proprietary process. “Since we do not add any material additives in the bottle-grade resins that we use, the material is much clearer than current market containers,” he says.

The patent-pending structural design of the packages includes a base designed to absorb pressure and vacuum, and thus minimize distortion during cooling. The bottles now are offered in five different stock designs: 18-, 24-, 32-oz round, and 45- and 48-oz “grip” jars.  Matt Defosse

Bioplastics: Tetra Pak tasks Braskem for bio-based HDPE

Braskem will begin supplying Tetra Pak with 5000 tonnes per year of "green" HDPE from 2011, which Tetra Pak says is a bit more than 5% of its annual HDPE requirement. Linda Bernier, director of corporate PR at Tetra Pak, told MPW that the company injection molds some of its closures but also buys them on the market, and has not yet decided who will process the Braskem HDPE. Braskem, South America’s largest chemicals and plastics supplier, expects to bring its green polyethylene plant online late next year. Sugar cane is used to produce ethylene, which can then be converted into polyethylene.

At a conference in Berlin, Germany in October organized by the European Bioplastics trade group, and attended by Modern Plastics, Rui Chemmes, director of Braskem’s PE operations, said the ethanol-based polyethylene has exactly the same characteristics as PE derived from petroleum. Plus, he added, it is nine times as efficient to derive ethanol from sugarcane as from corn, and four-and-a-half times as efficient compared to ethanol derived from sugar beets. “Sugarcane is a 4m-high plant” that grows quickly and with little assistance, he explained. Other environmental benefits include its work as “a real vacuum cleaner of carbon dioxide.” One pound of petroleum-based PE releases 2.5 kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, he said, whereas the same amount of sugarcane-based PE captures that same amount of the gas.

Chemmes said the supplier has developed low-density, linear low-density and high-density polyethylene grades from the ethanol, and even a polypropylene, though this last, as yet, has only been achieved on a lab scale. “Next year (2010) we’ll start a 200,000-tonne capacity plant” for PE, he said, adding quickly that this smaller facility is “just a start.” According to Chemmes, the next facility will be capable of outputs of 1 million tonnes or more annually. “We want to be mainstream” with these materials, not a niche, he stated. Matt Defosse

Blowmolding: W. Amsler pushes into Latin America

In addition to Mexico and Puerto Rico, Plastec U.S.A. will represent Amsler in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Custom Sales & Systems will sell Amsler equipment in Mexico. Both agents will sell Amsler’s reheat stretch-blow machinery and the auxiliary equipment it also makes, including leak testers, spin trimmers, and palletizers.

Werner Amsler, founder and president of the company bearing his name, said naming the new reps for Latin America is the first step in what he says will be a global expansion. “We have an ambitious program underway to expand globally and introduce our innovative technologies to new customers,” said Amsler in a prepared statement. “Overall, we want to capitalize on the growing opportunities in small- and medium-volume production runs for PET containers which represent our core business.” Amsler manufactures linear machines with outputs up to 10,000 bottles/hr and rotary equipment for outputs up to 24,000 bottles/hr.

The company also appointed Keystone Plastics Equipment (Nazareth, PA) as its agent in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. It, too, will sell Amsler’s complete equipment range. [email protected]