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Gross Mismanagement Part V: Education

Nowadays there is a lot of rhetoric about the lack of enough skilled employees to sustain the recovery from the last recession. Some analysts claim there are over 600,000 available manufacturing jobs searching for people with adequate skills. Looking back, the plastics industry has always grown faster than the supply of technically competent employees. The only exceptions were the recession years of 1958-59, 1974-75, 1980-81, and 1989-91. A year or so following each of these recessions there was another shortage of skilled employees.

The country is just now recovering from an abnormally long recession. Once again there are not enough skilled employees to support the growing economy. This is no surprise. The plastics industry didn’t have enough competent employees at the start of the recession, and they have even fewer as the economy recovers. But why?

Because the plastics processors, material manufacturers, moldmakers and others have been negligent in not assuring an adequate supply of employees to sustain the growth of their companies. Over the years there have been many good trade schools, universities, colleges’ out-reach programs, and adult evening courses that trained people for jobs in the plastics industry. The best of these teaching institutions did a good job of servicing full-time students and local residents. However, the U.S. is a large country. There never were enough schools to take care of the whole country. Regrettably the plastics industry has always abandoned these programs and students at the first indication of a slowing of the economy.

School administrators, who are always short of money and space, see the declining enrollment and respond accordingly. They lay off the teacher(s), sell the equipment, and devote the space to teaching more sustainable subjects such as court reporting, computer science, nursing, or international marketing. There are exceptions. Some very good plastics technology teaching institutions have survived the recessions, but with reduced enrollment.

The teachers, machinery, and space are gone
At the end of a recession the industry returns to the same schools for help. The schools that stopped teaching plastics technology are understandably reluctant to restart a program for any industry that failed to support a similar program during the last decline in the economy. To make matters worse the instructors, machinery, and floor space are gone and difficult to replace. Those institutions that continued teaching through the recession now enjoy increased enrollment. However, it takes them 18 or 24 or more months to teach a new crop of students. The end result is that the U.S. does not have enough teaching institutions to produce the number of employees needed to support the growth of the plastics industry. This is the situation in which the industry finds itself today. This repeated failure to support the institutions that are teaching the next generation of employees is an example of gross mismanagement. 

 Without enough schools the next generation of employees has been forced to learn by the slow process of trial and error in on-the-job training programs. Regrettably even this trial and error method of training new employees is now under attack.

Maximizing shareholder equity
In the 1990s, one management flavor-of-the-month was maximizing shareholder equity. Theoretically this approach would keep corporate management’s attention focused on increasing profits. The man-in-the-street immediately recognized that if the stockowners received larger dividends each year they would be happy and wouldn’t object to CEOs receiving large salaries, generous stock options, and lavish fringe benefits. This is exactly what happened. This practice worked well for awhile, but it has had some unpleasant side effects.

In an attempt to produce ever-increasing profits, corporate America initiated a high-pressure, across-the-board cost-cutting policy. A lot of manufacturing jobs were sent offshore to what buyers thought were low-cost suppliers. In many instances this was done without taking the time to learn what the total cost would be.

Many large corporations canceled their employees’ plastics magazine subscriptions. Others stopped paying employees’ membership dues to technical societies such as the Society of Plastics Engineers or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Industrial Design Society of America. The corporations paid a high price for these cost reductions. They deprived their employees of the valuable learning opportunities provided by the technical societies. The loss of the trade magazines took away a constant source of technical articles and announcements of new materials and technology.

If this wasn’t bad enough, management also severely restricted conference registrations and travel budgets. Technical society memberships nosedived. Conference and seminar attendance declined and then stopped. Visits to supplier’s plants became infrequent or were replaced with teleconferences. These teleconferences appeared to reduce cost. However, they deprived employees of the opportunity to learn from their suppliers who are all experts in their own fields. 

The loss of the traditional ways of educating employees is a handicap that the modern plastics industry has not yet overcome. But why not? Because the majority of white-color workers in the plastics industry were not taught plastics technology at the university. Very few blue-color workers received any training in plastics before assuming their present jobs. Without enough schools in strategic locations all of these people have to learn plastics technology from technical societies, conferences, suppliers, seminars, and trade magazines. Without their company’s financial support most employees will not take advantage of these opportunities to learn plastics technology

Corporate America and the plastics industry are guilty of gross mismanagement in creating this undesirable lack of educational opportunities. Corporate America also has the ability to reverse this trend. A failure to acknowledge and correct this situation only compounds the problem and deprives the industry of the employees needed today and in the future.

A growing industry needs employees
Fortunately all is not doom and gloom. In several locations across the U.S. responsible plastics industry activists, including competitors, are cooperating in the development of plastics learning opportunities. In most instances these consortiums partner with a local teaching institution. The school provides the location and the actual instructor. The consortium consults on the curriculum, provides financial support for equipping the facility, and pledges to stand by the school during future recessions. 

Many of the plastics magazines have started online newsletters. The industry still has a lot of excellent books covering all aspects of plastics technology. It is, however, difficult to motivate employees to take the time to learn by reading on their own. The exception is when something goes wrong and everybody is looking for quick fixes.

Single- and multiple-day seminars have always been a quick fix for employees who did not study plastics at the university. Regrettably most of these seminars were discontinued in the last recession. As the economy recovers, some seminars are being reintroduced. Most seminars are excellent, concentrated learning opportunities. It is, however, difficult to convince management to pay for a seminar and give the employee time off to attend.

Webinars are now being substituted for seminars. Management approves of webinars as they are low cost or free, there are no travel expenses, and the employee is off of the job for only an hour or so. Webinars are certainly better than nothing, but they are no substitute for single- or multiple-day seminars.

Online learning, which is the equivalent of the old correspondence courses, is becoming a reality. This is a technology that the plastics industry should embrace and promote. There is no better way to educate employees who live and work in isolated locations.

Another positive sign is that some of the moldmaking and plastics technology trade schools are once again in operation and enjoying good enrollments.

Now is the time for responsible members of the plastics industry to recognize that it is poor business to continue to ignore the educational needs of their next generation of employees. The economy is recovering. It is no longer possible to steal enough skilled workers from the competition. If you can’t provide actual training you must at least financially support the institutions that can. The plastics industry is going to be around for a long time. It is going to grow. It will need a steady supply of technically competent people to support that growth in the increasingly competitive global economy. 

Managing your NPE2012 experience; there’s an app for that

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) has launched a free app that will allow users to create and manage their show schedule; view and select exhibitors; navigate the show floor; stay connected; and more. To install, simply go to the App Store from your iPad and search for NPE2012.

SPI has additional resources available for connected show goers including:

Mobile Phone Site: If you have a smart phone with a web browser then you can use the NPE2012 mobile site to access Map Your Show, the official provider of the show directory. Go to the NPE homepage from your phone browser and select Mobile Phone Site. SPI notes that both of these mobile options work with a MyShow Planner account, which allows you to build a custom agenda of exhibitors, sessions and events that you plan to visit during show week.

Plan Your Visit: Visit the NPE2012 Welcome page to access resources for your trip to Orlando. From convention district maps and shuttle schedules to special discounts on dining and transportation, this site provides all the links and information. The Welcome page includes information on:

  • Registration Hours and Locations
  • Hotels and Dining
  • Transportation and Luggage
  • NPE2012 Mobile Apps
  • Attraction Tickets and Leisure
  • Education and MyShow Planner
In addition to these new capabilities, SPI has established NPE2012 social media sites on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn that give instant access to news about NPE2012 and provide networking opportunities.

Berry Plastics Group files for IPO

The Evansville, IN-based company produces a variety of products, including open top and closed top packaging, polyethylene-based plastic films, industrial tapes, medical specialties, flexible packaging, heat-shrinkable coatings, specialty laminates, and FIBCs.

The company told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a preliminary prospectus that it intends to use the proceeds from the offering partly to repay debt, according to reports. Berry said in the filing that after completion of the offering, funds affiliated with Apollo Global Management LLC will continue to own a majority of the voting power.

RadiciGroup to highlight engineering plastics solutions for auto sector

Several polyamide(PA) grades from Italian supplier RadiciGroup Plastics (booth 35017) will be under the spotlight at the NPE, including PA66 resins with exceptional heat resistance to aging in air at temperatures of up to 210°C. Radilon A BMV200 HHR 3800 NER, for example, is a high-performance blow-molding material with 20% glass-fiber filling said to be them ideal for applications such as turbo ducts (hot side). Its partner in high heat resistance, Radilon A BMV150 HHR 3800 NER, is a 15% glass-fiber filled PA66 plastic. Among other products showcased at NPE2012 will be Radilon A RV350 HHR 3800 NER 35% glass-fiber filled PA66 specifically formulated for the automotive industry for applications such as intercooler trays, turbo ducts and resonators.

Radici’s exhibit also has a green tinge, with Radilon D PA610 60% derived from bio sources for injection molding and extrusion. Key applications for this offering include fuel lines and their connectors, pneumatic conduits, and brake lines. Compared to PA 6 and 66, Radilon D exhibits reduced moisture uptake and less loss of tensile strength and tensile modulus under wet conditions, better chemical resistance in contact with zinc chloride and calcium chloride solutions and, lastly, better glycol resistance.

Returning to 6 and 66 compounds, 50% GF-reinforced Radilon A RV500 RW 339 materials ensure higher tensile strength and deformation at break, including in the presence of weld lines, and greater impact resistance under both wet and dry conditions.

In producing the Radilon A RV300 HRG 3900 NER line of 30% GF-reinforced PA66 polymers, both the polymer and compound have been optimized in order to maximize glycol resistance properties. Some of the features of these materials are excellent mechanical properties (modulus and load), excellent impact strength, good processability and moldability, and good wear and fatigue resistance even at high temperatures.

Also 30% GF-reinforced, Radilon A GF300 RKC NER materials are characterized by high content of recycled polyamides coming from a controlled source, superior mechanical properties and excellent reliability. These low environmental impact RadiciGroup products are ideal for critical automotive components.

During NPE, RadiciGroup Plastics is also presenting the Radiflam S, Radiflam A and Radiflam B: flame-retardant PA6, PA66 and PBT flame-retardant lines for injection molding and extrusion, as well as and Heraflex E thermoplastic elastomers for injection molding.

"With over 250 automotive source approvals, high-level European technology and a very good presence in the local American and Japanese automotive markets, today we are part of the world supplier pool for the automotive industry,” says Danilo Micheletti, RadiciGroup Chief Operating Officer for North America, South America and China. “This is a market where there is ample room for growth in polyamide components and increasing demand for materials with a smaller environmental footprint. At the NPE show we are focusing on some of the leading products in our Radilon range, which is made up of PA6, PA66 and PA610 engineering plastics combining high performance and reduced environmental impact.” He adds, “They are the right solution for the manufacture of difficult-to-engineer parts like under-the-hood components, for the replacement of metals or, as in the case of Radilon PA610, the replacement of high environmental impact plastics used in applications such as pneumatic conduits, brake lines and fuel lines, to mention just a few.” Micheletti concludes, “We are also focusing on the Radiflam nylon and PBT flame-retardant product lines that we have recently expanded to include automotive applications we did not previously target.”

Exotic resin replaces metal in gear shift lever

A leading automotive OEM in Europe is now using a polyphthalamide (PPA) compound from Evonik Industries (Darmstadt, Germany) in the serial production of a gearshift lever part, thereby enabling metal replacement and lightweighting. Turkish company Eurotec Engineering Plastics AS (Corlu) compounded Vestamid HTplus specifically for this purpose.


Gear lever's exposure to clutch oil calls for high chemical resistance.

"Our decision in favor of Vestamid HTplus M1000 was based on its good processing characteristics and the outstanding mechanical properties of the material," says Reha Gür, commercial director at Eurotec. "This allowed us to offer the OEM a customized product based on their future expectations that not only weighs less, but is also more economical than the previous solution."

The original gearshift lever component was made of metal. Because of the special property profile of PPA, Eurotec was able to switch its production to the high-performance polymer. Other arguments in favor of using PPA included high resistance to lubricants and oils that are typically present in clutch systems.

In addition to high chemical resistance, molded parts made from Vestamid HTplus offer high dimensional stability and excellent mechanical properties such as rigidity and tensile strength. Vestamid HTplus is reportedly therefore ideally suited for use in conventional metal applications.-[email protected]

TPE resin pricing, March 12-16: PE and PP slip $0.01/lb; PP contracts up $0.05/lb not $0.15/lb

(TPE) reports there was a good flow of material seen at slightly lower prices, and while demand remained slack, a fair number of deals still came together. The markets have lost some of their upward momentum, as March PP contracts settled up just a nickel after being initially nominated to increase $0.15/lb. There are $0.03 -$0.10/lb of PE increases on the table for March, but it now seems that at the most it will be $0.03/lb, and even that remains uncertain, according to TPE.

Energy markets were mixed in less-volatile trading, as front month futures contracts rolled to May. Crude Oil futures shed just $0.29/bbl to settle at $107.58/bbl on Friday. May natural gas futures ticked up $0.011/mmBtu to end the week at $2.324/mmBtu. The crude oil : natural gas price ratio moved in to 44:1, which is extremely wide by historic standards. While 6:1 is considered parity, it has not been there since the end of 2008.

Ethylene added a penny in relatively light trading. A large cracker was unexpectedly taken offline, and the temporary disruption brought total capacity to just 85% of nameplate and restricted spot supplies. The majority of the busy turnaround season is planned to end in May, and the market is pricing relief after that. Material for March delivery traded at $0.655/lb, almost a dime more than ethylene for delivery in the 4th quarter of 2012. Ethane prices gave back a nickel to end the week at $0.54/gal ($0.228/lb).

Polyethylene (PE) prices shed the penny picked up the week before. Resin processors, well-stocked with inventory, are resisting producers' efforts to secure the $0.03/lb balance of the $0.06/lb price increase partially implemented in February. Demand, both domestic and export, was slower in February than some had anticipated contributing to the swell in upstream inventories. Ample railcar availability at reasonable market prices is easing buyers' concerns about the market escalating further. Many resin warehouses are also jammed full in Houston, so most commodity grades can be sourced in packages for quick shipping.

Propylene monomer eased, slipping a penny or so, but at least the market has stopped rising for now. Polymer grade propylene (PGP) for March delivery most recently changed hands at $0.74/lb and April was just a half-cent higher. March PGP contracts settled at $0.775/lb, up $0.05/lb, so noted, TPE CEO Michael Greenberg, "As long as the spot market continues to trade at a discount to contract, the steep increases should already be behind us." That said, Greenberg noted that there are still a couple months of cracker/refinery maintenance and unplanned disruptions that could send the market higher again. Refinery grade propylene (RGP) traded down a couple cents to $0.67/lb.

Polypropylene's (PP) market is struggling amid back-to-back price increases and spot eased a penny on light demand. March PP contracts rose $0.05/lb, a dime less than originally sought, but the $0.215/lb two-month jump is proving to be a large pill to swallow. Tight PGP monomer supplies, due to crackers opting to utilize ethane as a favored feedstock over propane, have been further restricted by a series of planned refinery and cracker turnarounds. Over the past several years, most PP contracts have been tied to monomer, rather than supply/demand of the resin, hence the uncontested increases. "The spot market is a different story," Greenberg said. "Buyers bought heavily ahead of these increases and are limiting current purchases to an as-needed basis." Suppliers, with plenty of material to sell, continue to offer spot material well discounted to contracts, with deals available for those that can handle Generic Prime or widespec.

Final thought from Michael Greenberg

Commodity resin prices were softer this past week. Sellers, challenged to move resin, eased prices despite March price increases. Polyethylene producers continue to pursue the second half of the $0.06/lb price increase remaining from February and still have a reasonable shot at securing it. However, two months of reduced exports have backed up material and this surplus is weighing on the market. PP buyers that stocked up ahead of the $0.215/lb of February/March increases are drawing down inventories limiting current high-cost purchases. March is entering its final stretch, and then the industry will gather in Orlando for NPE - our booth is 23013, drop by and say hello.

DuPont to feature amine-free antistat for film at NPE2012

DuPont will feature a new amine-free antistat for BOPP and PP film in booth (#35013).

The new product, Grindsted AR100, is designed for the food packaging industry, and will be showcased at NPE2012, along with other biobased additives resulting from the recent acquisition of Danisco. It also is the subject of a science and technology talk at the Technology Theater in the South Hall Booth (#39039) on Tuesday, April 3, at 2:30 p.m.

“DuPont has strength and depth in antistat solutions for polyolefins, and our new product is something that the market has been seeking for some time,” stated Bjarne Nielsen, senior applications manager, DuPont Polymer Additives, in the news release. “Antistats are an important additive in many different packaging applications serving a well-defined purpose: preventing the attraction of dust and other fine particles to the polymer surface that would otherwise render a packaged product unattractive. There is a widespread desire today to avoid traditional ethoxylated amine chemistry wherever possible as demands for unquestioned safe chemistry in food packaging grow steadily.”

DuPont acquired Danisco, one of the largest producers of food emulsifiers in the world, in May 2011, and this now forms the basis of DuPont’s nutrition and health division. Included in the acquisition are the company’s five emulsifier manufacturing plants throughout the world in Europe, the U.S., Malaysia, China and Brazil.

Electrically stimulated polymers eyed for medical devices

Duke scientists have discovered a potentially interesting way to deliver drugs from an internal medical device, such as a drug-eluting stent.

In research published in the journal Advanced Materials, Xuanhe Zhao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, demonstrated that the surface texture of polymers can be altered on demand through application of an electric current.

Duke researchers Qiming Wang, left, and Xuanhe Zhao work on polymer surface modification.

"We invented a method which is capable of dynamically generating a rich variety of patterns with various shapes and sizes on large areas of soft plastics or polymers," Zhao said

"By changing the voltage applied to the polymer, we can alter the surface from bumpy to smooth and back again," said Zhao. It had been previously demonstrated that plastics' surfaces can be permanently textured through electrostatic lithography, in which patterns are "etched" onto a surface from an electrode located above the polymer. In the Duke innovation, the texturing is not done for permanent, or cosmetic purposes, but for short-term, functional purposes.

"There are many instances, for example, when you'd want to be able to change at will a surface from one that is rough to slippery and back again." These include or even as platforms for controlled-release drug-eluting devices.

"This new approach can dynamically switch polymer surfaces among various patterns ranging from dots, segments, lines to circles," said Qiming Wang, a student in Zhao's laboratory and the first author of the paper. "The switching is also very fast, within milliseconds, and the pattern sizes can be tuned from millimeter to sub-micrometer."

The Duke approach is a more sophisticated way to release drugs from stents than the method currently used. In technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the amounts of sebacic acid used in a polymer compound are varied to determine the rate of release of drugs. Architecture of the polymer also affects drug release rate.

The Duke researchers are currently using silicone rubber. "We expect the method will work for many soft polymers (e.g. latex rubbers, acrylic rubbers)," Dr. Zhao tells PlasticsToday.

"The voltage currently applied is through a high-voltage supply," he says. "However, the power required for the actuation is very low, because only electrostatic is involved in the actuation." A battery with a high-voltage transistor may work.

Another potential use of the new technology is creation of surfaces that are self-cleaning and water-repellant.

The Duke study was supported by the Research Triangle Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as the Lord Foundation and a Haythornthwaite Research Initiation grant. Other members of the research team were Duke's Mukarram Tahir and Jianfeng Zang.

Injection-molded crash-resistant composite steels the show

Injection-molded crash-resistant composite steels the show

Together with its partners—metal transformation and coatings solutions provider Bekaert (Kortrijk, Belgium) and automotive plastic composite processor voestalpine Plastics Solutions (Bunschoten, The Netherlands)—materials supplier BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany) is currently working on the development of thermoplastic components that are reinforced with steel cord fabrics and fabricated by means of injection molding.


Steel cord reinforcement for crash-safe autos.

The three companies have joined together with the objective of employing and further developing this new EASI (for Energy Absorption, Safety and Integrity) technology with partners in the automotive industry. In contrast to other types of reinforcements like continuous fiber-reinforced laminates or other carbon or glass fiber fabrics, the steel cord inserts especially ensure the integrity of the molded part's function in a crash situation. This reportedly creates an entirely new performance class.

Bekaert, voestalpine Plastics Solutions, and BASF have been investigating steel cord-reinforced injection molded parts since 2010. The first production part using the predecessor technology was based on compression molding with GMT (glass mat-reinforced thermoplastics), and received the AVK Innovation Award in 2008. Working together, the three companies are now focusing on conventional injection molding of parts with steel cord reinforcement.

Bekaert contributes its expertise in the manufacture of steel cord fabrics to the partnership, while voestalpine Plastics Solutions is responsible for the processing technology and part production using injection molding. BASF, for its part, is continuing to develop its crash-optimized short- and long fiber-reinforced polyamide resins in the Ultramid product line for use in combination with the steel cord inserts.

At the same time, the company is expanding its expertise in the prediction of part performance by enhancing the capabilities of its Ultrasim simulation tool through incorporation of representation methods and material models for the new composite materials. By using polyamide as a matrix material it is not only possible to apply the EASI composite technology attached or semi-structural parts but also gain entry to components of the body-in-white (BIW), which need to run through the 150-200ºC e-coating process.

The steel cord reinforcement employed in the EASI concept ensures that an injection molded part retains its structural integrity. Thus, while EASI parts may be damaged in a crash, they are still able to absorb energy and lead it further into the structure. This is a decisive innovation when compared to molded plastic parts with conventional reinforcement that usually fracture upon failure. The material is thus predestined for regions that are intended for absorption and harmonic distribution of crash energy.

A video of the crash impact performance of the composite can be found here. The resultant level of performance cannot be attained with other types of reinforcing technology. Vehicle components where these characteristics can be exploited include structure-relevant attachments such as bumper beam carriers or front ends as well as BIW components. The three partners believe that combining polyamide injection molding and steel cord reinforcement provides optimal access, specifically to parts that must retain their supporting function and structural integrity in order to further distribute forces in a crash.-[email protected]

Insert-molded reinforced laminate lightens the load

The new Opel Astra OPC, a sport coupe that was introduced at the Geneva Auto Show at the beginning of March 2012, has a seat pan made from a thermoplastic laminate with continuous fiber reinforcement (an "organo sheet"). This is the world's first auto seat pan based on this technology manufactured for a production vehicle. The seat pan uses a specialty polyamide from BASF's Ultramid product range and is 45% lighter than its predecessor.


All-polyamide seat pan is insert molded.

Thermoplastic laminates with continuous fiber reinforcement, also called composites, are processed from plastic-impregnated fabrics. They serve as the reinforcement in plastic parts that must be especially lightweight yet still exhibit exceptional performance. BASF (Ludwighshafen, Germany) developed two special Ultramid grades for the Opel Astra OPC seat pan: an unreinforced grade that acts as the material in which the glass fiber fabric is embedded, and an impact-modified, short glass fiber-reinforced Ultramid that is used as the overmolding material to achieve the necessary ribs and edges of the part by means of conventional injection molding. Thanks to the high strength of the laminate, the wall thicknesses can be reduced considerably, allowing the weight of the seat pan to be lowered significantly.

After the seat pan in the Opel Insignia OPC was first made from Ultramid in 2008, albeit still without laminate reinforcement, technological cooperation between the two companies went a step further. To design and build the seat pan for the Astra OPC, BASF engineers further provided material descriptions for the virtual design of both the continuous fiber-reinforced laminate and the overmolded ribbed areas of the part. The knowledge gained from this experience will be incorporated into an extension of BASF's Ultrasim universal simulation tool, making it possible to predict the behavior of thermoplastic composite parts with continuous fiber reinforcement.

The composite seat pan is produced by means of in-mold forming: this involves placing the heated and formable, thermoplastic laminate in the injection tool, forming it into the necessary shape, fixing it cleverly, and immediately overmolding it. BASF was able to support its customer with its own expertise in this innovative manufacturing process.

The seat back, the transverse support and the handle on the back are also made from Ultramid. The seat has 18 adjustment options, allowing optimal adaptation to the body of the driver or passenger.- [email protected]