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.

Sitemap


Articles from 2004 In April


Web-exclusive: Part 1: Educating OEMs on pitfalls of going offshore key to survival

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series offering molders and moldmakers advice on staying competitive.

Offshore competition is a reality. But it’s not the only problem plaguing U.S. molders and moldmakers. A lack of industry savvy among OEM purchasers of tooling and molded components makes the perception of offshore’s monetary savings bigger than the reality. To turn this around, molders and moldmakers need to do a better job of educating their OEM customers. That’s the conclusion of Steve DeHoff, consultant for Stress Engineering Services, a product development firm based in Cincinnati, OH.

DeHoff spent almost 18 years at Procter & Gamble (P&G) as a purchasing and engineering manager. He was responsible for meeting the company's huge plastics requirements for molded parts and tooling for products ranging from detergent to water filtration devices. He also authored much of P&G’s current corporate strategies and work processes for plastics development.

DeHoff has experienced firsthand how "the industry leaves the last 30% on the table" by consistently failing to optimize the tooling/piece part combination. "I saved enormous amounts of money for P&G, got market time cut in half, and achieved better product quality all at the same time," says DeHoff. "[Molders and moldmakers] make themselves noncompetitive."

U.S. molders and mold manufacturers can be competitive with offshore competitors in many situations—if they understand where their customers are coming from and how to optimize their customers’ requirements and look at their products strategically, DeHoff emphasizes.

The China Conundrum

The decision to outsource production to China is often made by people at an OEM who haven’t a clue as to why they are doing it or what it will mean in terms of cost. "Someone at the top says ‘we’re going to China,’ so like lemmings going over the cliff, they all say ‘we’re going to China,’" explains DeHoff. "There’s no evaluation, no consideration of strategic alternatives, and usually a failure to consider the costs."

Whether China is a good choice is very situational. If there are cost savings, DeHoff notes that they can be minimal. "Many companies are giving back more in molding and logistics costs than they are saving in assembly," he says. "Assembly labor is the true area of advantage in China, along with resin cost advantages on certain raw materials."

OEM buyers don’t understand the economics of molding, says DeHoff. "Molding is a scale cost and is technology driven—you have to buy machines and molds—people usually just shift the cost from moldbuilding to molding," he explains. "Optimum total cost for our clients usually involves more spending on the mold in return for less spending on the parts."

Microeconomics Applied to Injection Molding

DeHoff notes that he has spent many years accumulating the necessary information to model the total economics of molding, including moldbuilding, and has modeled and validated hundreds of actual parts. Economics often have a cost optimization curve. "The grand ‘ah-ha’ is that microeconomic textbook models regarding costs fit this industry like a glove," he says.

The point is that injection molding costs have a U- or L-shaped curve, and in most cases molders are up on the wall of that curve, rather than at the bottom. Chinese molders and other very low-tech molders are often near the top of the curve.

"We feed clients rate-of-return information in addition to identifying the curve bottom for their particular situation after taking into account things like volumes, product life, financial life, depreciation, and basic tax effects for the moldbuilding options available," DeHoff explains. In most cases, the peak rate of return on incremental mold investment occurs just to the left of the curve bottom. In many cases, however, the curve bottom is executed at a return lower than the peak, but still very high. Often, the rates of return are several hundred percent. How many businesses have new products with rates of return this high? Most are happy with 15% to 20% returns.

There is no one in the molding or moldbuilding industry who can give buyers an explanation of why this works and why it’s better. The reason mold optimization works is that the molding industry is highly undifferentiated due to standardized mold equipment, and is very competitive, DeHoff notes. In economics, this makes pricing transparent to cost, meaning if you change cost you change price by almost the same amount. Conversely, when competitive forces are very low, there is little to no connection between cost and price.

In the custom molding industry, price and cost are almost perfectly connected, so if you can move the cost you can move the price. "As soon as the buyer benefits in the unit cost from money spent on the mold, he understands that cycle time matters, cooling matters, and tool steel matters; and that these are all dependent on how and where you purchase the mold, not the parts," DeHoff adds.

The molding industry fails to optimize its customers' costs because what the market will bear is different from what is possible and economically rational for the buyers. This is that 30% that the system leaves on the table. And, when you think about that in the context of the Chinese, it won’t make the difference all the time, but often it will.

"The person who needs to get educated are the buyers of molds and molded parts," says DeHoff. "They continue to have a difficult time understanding why this mold is $10,000 and the other guy is $200,000, and why it makes a difference which bid to accept."

Although some molders and moldbuilders try to explain the difference in price quotes to purchasers, DeHoff says there’s suspicion on the part of the purchaser. "Some doubt the information because the guys offering the explanation are selling the mold," says DeHoff. "In the end, buyers aren’t crazy, just ignorant. They just need information about how all this really works."

Contact Information

Stress Engineering Services Inc.
Steve DeHoff
(513) 336-6701
[email protected]

Plastics sitting pretty in cosmetics packaging

Recent material developments could help processors push plastics further up the value chain in the market.

Glass still rules the roost for expensive products, but plastics are making in-roads as material suppliers either develop new grades or reposition ones they already have. Plastics also play a central role in cosmetics firms'' targeting of the ''masstige'' sector of the market—mass-market products priced and marketed to lend them some prestige.

Thickwalled (6-mm and up) cosmetics jars are no stranger to plastics and are considered their best entry point for packaging of high-cost products. Supplier Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN) late last year began using the motto ''Glass Polymer'' to draw attention to the near-glass look and feel of packaging made in its Eastar AN001 (for injection blow-molding) and AN004 (for injection molding) copolyester grades, both targeted at thickwalled packaging.

Market Manager Vincent Gugumus says few plastics suppliers offer transparent polymers with the chemical resistance required for these applications. PET has the necessary resistance but usually loses some transparency in thicker parts, he says, so PET packaging is usually thinner and therefore squeezable—and not really a direct substitute for glass. (Sister firm Voridian does supply a PET grade suitable for packaging in thicknesses of 6 to 7 mm with no hazing, says a Voridian spokesman). In January, Eastman announced it would also offer a grade suitable for extrusion blowmolding.

"Tooling costs and machine costs are lower [than for injection or injection blow lines], so we hope to generate interest for even more applications," Gugumus explains.

Eastman is still working on cost comparisons with glass packaging, but Gugumus says that in general, "the more complex the part, the more reasons to use plastics. Even when we''re more expensive, we see some applications where consumers are willing to pay a little more."

An example he cites are applications intended for frequent travelers, since the cost of a broken glass bottle filled with lotion often extends beyond the lost lotion to include any clothing in a suitcase. "These are applications we target as there is an obvious benefit to the consumer," he says.

The Eastar materials are best used for lotions and creams, says Gugumus, but he does not recommend them for perfumes, as a reaction with chemicals used in some perfumes could cause packaging to haze.

Amy Plancon, marketing manager in BP Chemicals'' Barex division (Naperville, IL), says she already sees solid demand in cosmetics packaging, medical packaging, and other high-end applications owing to Barex''s good chemical resistance, gas barrier performance, and inert nature. She expects demand to jump this year as the firm introduces a grade specifically for cosmetics, which addresses issues about the material''s transparency. By nature, Barex has a straw-colored tint, and the supplier also makes a dark blue tinted grade available, but the cosmetics grade is near colorless, she says.

Current Barex cosmetics packaging includes nail polish for Avon and Revlon; P&G is one of the largest users for a Max Factor lip gloss container. Barex also sees frequent use in sample packaging, Plancon says, since its potent gas barrier is important for these small packages with relatively high surface area. Barex cosmetics packaging is both injection and injection stretch blowmolded.

Old materials being taught new markets

Also being repositioned to target the cosmetics packaging market are Zeonor cyclic olefinic copolymers (COCs). Supplied by Zeon Chemicals (Louisville, KY) and commercial since 1990, Zeonor was first used in optical devices, then in medical, semiconductor and electrical applications.

Toshiro Katayama, Zeonor business manager, says the material is not yet in commercial use in cosmetics packaging, but adds that "several key cosmetic companies are currently testing them" in applications including perfume bottles, nail polish bottles, and mascara tubes.

He awaits positive feedback and points to the material''s chemical resistance and light transparency of more than 92% at 3-mm thickness, better than PC and PET and comparable to PMMA, he says. Light transparency of the Eastar materials is up to 92%, says Gugumus.

Zeon says its material resists polar solvents better than PET and copolyesters; PET tends to haze, whiten, and crack when exposed to these. Price could prove a drawback as COCs are more expensive than even PC, but Zeon expects the benefits to outweigh cost concerns for some applications.

Two materials already marketed to extruders by acrylics supplier Atoglas, a subsidiary of Atofina (Paris, France), are now also drawing interest from the molded cosmetics packaging market. Anne Rouviere, market manager cosmetics, says the firm is seeing solid interest for its Frosted grades of Altuglas, commercial since 2002 but used primarily for lighting, bathroom fixtures, or point-of-sale racks. It processes similar to standard PMMA, she says, but parts have a translucent frosted appearance, with no need for secondary embossing nor

changes to the mold. As demand grows, particularly among French molders supplying the cosmetics market, Atoglas is developing new grades, she says.

The supplier is also seeing interest from cosmetics packaging molders in another acrylic-based material which imitates granite. Commercial already for lighting and for swimming pool steps, Rouviere says packaging molders are also keen to use the material.

"The granules are in different colors," explains Rouviere, among them white, brown, black, green and blue, "and the molder makes his own mixture using the different colored granulate." Properties of the material are similar to PMMA, but injection molding parameters are very different, so most molders likely will require some technical assistance, she points out.

Altuglas is very suitable for thick walled molded applications even to 5-cm, says Rouviere. It can show a lack of resistance to some specific alcohols but would then often be coinjection molded over PP to provide a glass-like exterior.

Looks aren''t everything, but almost

Processors are challenged to develop packaging that not only adds shelf presence, but individuality to a personal care products line.

The U.S. cosmetic and toiletry container markets are projected to climb 2.6%/yr to 23 billion units in 2007, according to market research Freedonia Group (Cleveland, OH). The market encompasses hundreds of items, such as hair and skin care, oral hygiene, cosmetics, deodorants and antiperspirants, fragrance, shaving, and liquid soaps. Hair care, oral hygiene and skin care were the three largest categories in 2002, Freedonia says, accounting for nearly two-thirds of unit demand.

Fighting it out at eye level

Looking beyond the numbers, the real battle for market share is taking place at the retail level, where shelf space is at a premium. "I think you''ll see design becoming a key element differentiating product presentation on the shelf," says Peter Hargraves, global beauty care package development, Proctor & Gamble (P&G; Cincinnati, OH). "Most decisions made in the store are at the shelf, shelves that are becoming increasingly crowded with different offerings."

Consequently, pouches are supplanting tubes and canisters for shampoo, creams, and conditioners, and transparent packaging for personal hygiene products is increasingly popular.

"You can see the color of the product, and copy on the [inside] back label," Hargraves says. "It communicates something about the purity of the product and what benefits consumers can expect."

Plastic continues to replace glass in personal care containers, which require safeguards against oxidation, evaporation, and chemical "attacks" from essential oils. Aesthetics are important, too, as premium products are typically packaged in elegant and upscale containers.

Masstige in masterbatches

A key element driving the latest packaging designs is upscaled offerings from mass-market skin care and cosmetic brands that compete head on with prestigious counterparts. "The trend that is really impacting plastics is being able to color and label in such a fashion that you grab eye attention on the shelf," Nitardy says, reinforcing a premium image.

To that end, marketers are specifying special-effect masterbatches that include pearlescents, iridescents, multichromatics, high-gloss, and opaque blacks. Single-pigment concentrates are ideal for small-lot injection molded components such as caps and closures. "Some color houses have built simple bottle molds to run color samples," observes Mitzi Sorenson, VP sales for Plastic Bottle Corp. (Libertyville, IL).

"However, the ever-demanding market wants those colors in the exact bottle they will be purchasing, and they want those samples at no cost to them. That''s because the large retailers require that from anyone trying to gain shelf space," she says. Plastic Bottle recently introduced a new bottle style called Genie Round, available in PETG and PVC materials, to add shelf presence and individuality to a personal care products line.

Innovation at all levels

At the same time, marketers are paying close attention to convenience and functionality. For instance, Precise Technology Inc. (North Versailles, PA) recently custom designed an injection molded plastic combination air freshener/toilet-paper holder for Dial Corp. (Scottsdale, AZ). The Renuzit Roller Scents bathroom air freshener is comprised of three injection molded pieces—the cage vial, body, and end cap—and .34 oz of liquid air freshener. The three components come together on one end with a spring. At the opposite end, a wick absorbs the liquid air freshener.

Processors, for their part, could go a long way towards helping suppliers develop large closures cost effectively. A case in point is gas-assisted injection molding, a process said to provide parts with increased functionality and performance. "You gain strength improvement by essentially having a thicker section of materials using less plastics," Hargraves says. "So you can build stronger parts more cost effectively."

There''s obviously constant pressure on molders because of competitive situations on profit margins and increased service demands from suppliers. Providing value-added products and services are considered par for the course, not 10 under.

"Suppliers don''t want to pay a value-added price," CCL''s Hayet says. "They want to enhance their value and maintain a marginal cost in the marketplace."

Greg Valero [email protected]

Caps off to closures

Complex tooling and wafer-thin margins pose challenges, but caps-and-closures promises steady demand

As cash-strapped consumers scrutinize their budgets, there are logical places to make cuts—and cost-conscious perks to help folks cope, according to Crown Zeller''s Nancy Kane.

"People need to eat, people need to wash their hair, and in times of an economic downturn," Kane says, "those are things where they can afford to buy a little higher-end brand or a little more in terms of quantity. They can afford to buy a $3 bottle of shampoo to make themselves feel better if they can''t afford that $3000 flat-screen TV."

Personal care and consumer products, as much, if not more so than medical items, truly are recession proof, and virtually all of them feature caps and closures of some variety. This ubiquity is evident in sector sales, where global caps and closures are an $18.7-billion market, with U.S. sales reaching $4.6 billion, according to consulting firm Piper Jaffray & Co., based in Minneapolis, MN).

In the U.S., sales are expected to increase by 5.1% annually through 2007, with global revenues rising 4% per year. This is largely to the benefit of an exclusive club, according to Piper Jaffray, with the top five players cornering 33% of the U.S. market, and the next five taking 16%—giving 10 firms 49% of the caps-and-closures pie.

Closure coronation

Crown Zeller (Libertyville, IL), formerly Zeller Plastik, was purchased by the global packaging conglomerate Crown Cork & Seal Inc. (Philadelphia, PA) in 1996, and splits its business 50/50 between custom work and the stock offerings it sells on a proprietary basis. For those with the design expertise and the capital, the ability sell a line of in-house closures is a beneficial one, and is relatively unique to the market.

"If we feel there''s a strong enough need in the market," Kane says, "we may go ahead and build a tool ourselves, lay out the capital, and in turn, it will become a stock product."

But like any shop servicing the packaging sector, it knows pricing pressures are ever-present. "Our customers know our business sometimes better than we do," Kane laments. "They know what our costs should be, and they try to keep us to those costs."

Cap consistency

Making life somewhat easier for cap-and-closure manufacturers like Crown Zeller, the Plastic Container Manufacturers Assn. is pushing forward with its efforts to create industry-wide finish standards, allowing for a consistent dimensional platform for closures. Bill Thomas, director of product development at Silgan Closures (Downers Grove, IL), says the finish standards for 43-, 48-, and 63-mm containers, although voluntary, will likely be adhered to.

"You can''t officially force [the standards] on anyone," Thomas says, "but with the membership of this committee being the major plastic container manufacturers, they''ve pretty much agreed that as old tooling wears out, they will replace it with the new industry-standard tooling." Ultimately, Thomas says this effort will simplify design for manufacturers.

"It''s going to eliminate a lot of headaches and confusion about what finish do I have to make for what closure company," Thomas says.

Tony Deligio [email protected]

IM machinery makers eyeing market, too

Injection blowmolding has long been one of the top choices for thickwall packages, as it offers a good balance of output, cost, and performance. But injection molding machine makers also are pursuing opportunities in this market. Last spring, Husky Injection Molding Systems (Bolton, ON) began marketing its Index Dual machines for such applications, says Bruce Catoen, VP automated systems.

"We think it''s an extremely interesting market," he says, and one that is rapidly turning global for his firm. "Most of the machines placed so far for thick-walled cosmetics packaging have been in North America, but we have 19 active leads and these come from all over—China, Asia, Europe, as well as the Americas," says Catoen.

He says sales have been to trade molders, not to cosmetics firms'' captive molding operations, though representatives from many cosmetics suppliers have been to Bolton to see their packaging made on the two-cavity prototyping system there.

The manufacturer claims its Index Dual technology allows it to realize cycle times about half that of competing injection molding units, Catoen says. Cycle time reductions help processors "compete favorably with glass on parts costs now," he says. "(Our customers) come within a penny or two of glass costs," and then the non-breakage and designability of plastics often wins out.

Many processors and material suppliers have in the past claimed that cost is not a huge factor in applications where a 2-oz bottle of perfume can easily sell for $50 or more, but Catoen says that''s nonsense.

"A $.10 differential in price on 10 million parts/yr adds up to big costs quickly," he observes.

Matt Defosse

New drugs package replacing glass

Developments in cosmetics packaging often are linked to those in rigid medical packaging, since both require many of the same properties, such as clarity, chemical resistance, and gas and/or moisture impermeability. In December, processor Owens-Illinois Plastics Group (Toledo, OH) and engineering thermoplastics supplier Ticona (Summit, NJ) announced the use of the latter''s Topas COC in multilayer injection blowmolded bottles and vials; O-I claims these are the only transparent, multilayer plastics alternative to Type 1 pharmaceutical glass. The bottles have been commercial since early last year when first shipments went to BioMerieux Inc., which is transitioning from glass to plastics packaging.

The bottles are made using the processor''s SurShot multi-layer preform molding technology, with the barrier layer coinjected between layers of PC, PET, or COCs, depending on the application. Wall thickness is .5 to 1.5 mm. This year O-I also will add as-yet unidentified anti-counterfeiting measures into the packaging.

Ticona notes that COC can be a center layer between PET or PC inner and outer layers for bottles requiring mechanical strength. The COC can also be an external layer with barrier material (nylon, for example) in the middle to improve water and gas barrier.

Matt Defosse

Contact information

BP Chemical''s Barex    www.barex.com
Crown Zeller   www.zellerplastik.com
Eastman Chemical   www.eastman.com
Owens-Illinois   www.o-i.com
Silgan Closures   www.silganclosures.com
Ticona   www.ticona.com
Voridian   www.voridian.com
Zeon Chemicals   www.zeonchemicals.com

Six always wins in nylons game

Six always wins in nylons game

Rhodia Engineering Plastics has pulled off something of a polymer technology coup by developing an unalloyed nylon 66—for automotive online-paintable external body panels and components—that it says is capable of withstanding e-coat temperatures of 200C (392F) for 30 minutes. The grade is intended for such parts as vertical panels, fuel filler flaps, rocker pillars, front grilles, and exterior trim applications.

Technyl A 238P5 M25 is said to meet all critical application requirements in impact, surface appearance, and processability. Parts have a uniform electrical conductivity (more Rhodia technology), enabling them to be painted electrostatically without a conductive primer.

The most widely used thermoplastic for fenders, GE Advanced Materials'' Noryl GTX, is an alloy of nylon with polyphenylene ether (PPE). GEAM says the PPE provides the necessary high-temperature resistance, but only Renault uses it for online painting, with other companies preferring to attach the panels to the car after the e-coat.

Last year, Bayer Polymers (as it was then called) introduced a rival material, also a nylon alloy, but in this case paired with ABS. Rhodia says it can get better properties from a pure nylon 66 and "specific fillers." It says sag test results, up to 220C (428F), demonstrate the "substantial advantage" of Technyl A 238P5 M25 over competitive materials. Parts also expand less at high temperatures, and Rhodia claims higher molding productivity through lower cycle times and part-reject rates.

Rhodia also has two new grades of 30% glass-fiber-reinforced nylon 66 (Technyl A 338Wit1 V30 bk34N and Technyl A 338Wit2 V30 bk34N) for engine cooling pipes made using water-assisted injection molding (WIT). The key difference between these and existing grades used in WIT, which were originally developed for gas-assisted molding (GIT), is the superior quality of the inner surface. This is due to a more even glass-fiber coverage by the polymer, along with a constant wall thickness free of water inclusion. This translates into greatly reduced pressure loss in the cooling circuit, and a reduced risk of fibers coming out of the matrix and polluting the cooling fluid.

Rhodia says the new grades also show an optimal balance between processability and glycol resistance. The tensile strength at break of Wit1 after 1000 hours at 130C (266F) in a mix of water and glycol is as good as that of GIT grade A 218Z V30 bk34N, and it is 15% higher in Wit2. Improvements in impact resistance are 80% and 100% respectively.

One six enough for DSM

Meanwhile, DSM says its Akulon nylon 6 offers performance equal to or better than many competitive nylon 66 formulations, with a significantly better price-to-performance ratio. Product manager Bert Havenith says Akulon shows better retention of strength—both at ambient temperature and above 100C (212F)— after heat aging, higher impact resistance at low temperatures, and much better processability, yielding better surface appearance, higher weld strength, and lower processing costs.

DSM is now into its second generation of Akulon Ultraflow, which is tougher than first-generation types. Akulon Ultraflow has 80% better flow than regular Akulon, as measured in spiral flow tests (photo). This can lead to cycle-time reductions of up to 40%. It also means that molded parts have good surface finish, even when compounds containing as much as 60% glass fiber are used. The material is close to commercial approval for use in such parts as electrical hand-tool housings and car mirror shells. In both cases, molders are experiencing cycle time reductions of about 35 to 55 seconds. An engine cover due to appear on a car launching in 2005 will have a wall thickness of 2.5 mm, instead of 3.2 mm.

Akulon Ultraflow is available in formulations with reinforcement up to 50% glass, as well as glass/mineral combinations. Typical applications include underhood automotive components and assemblies, door handles and mirror brackets; electrical components; power tool and lawn-and-garden enclosures and housings; and ski bindings. DSM Engineering Plastics, Sittard, The Netherlands; +31 46 47 73522; www.dsmep.com. Rhodia Engineering Plastics, Lyon, France; +33 4 72 89 27 53; www.rhodia-ep.com

RESINS/COMPOUNDS

Flexible vinyl used for enhanced heat stabilizers

By using more efficient, proprietary heat stabilizers than conventional medical-grade PVC, the new Apex line increases manufacturing throughput. It allows extrusion processors to run machines at higher rates with fewer screen changes, and injection molders to fill thin-walled parts without worry of high shear. After production, the stabilizer allows components to be shipped and stored without concern for heat levels, and enables autoclave sterilization without discoloration or degradation.

FDA regulatory restrictions don''t allow barium-zinc and other heavy-metal-containing heat stabilizers in medical parts. Teknor Apex''s medical compounds are heavy metal-free, but they reportedly have thermal stability similar to compounds containing heavy metal stabilizers.

The compounds are offered in the same durometer range as the company''s standard PVC compounds range. The first grades are clear, but opaque variations are to follow. Apex 3700 compounds are for clear extrusion of tubing used in blood transport, external feeding, oxygen delivery, dialysis, catheters, and drainage systems. For injection molding, 3800 compounds can be used to create oxygen masks, mouthpieces, adapters, valves, connectors, drip chambers, and syringe bulbs. Teknor Apex, Pawtucket, RI, USA; +1 401- 725-8000; www.teknorapex.com

Thermoplastics vie for electrical applications

DuPont has extended its Zytel glass-fiber-reinforced nylon range to include two grades with higher fire-retardancy ratings in a move to grab some of the electrical components market now using polyester bulk molding compound (BMC). According to marketing manager Brian Fish, the new grades beat BMC on cycle times and design functionality (as they allow more molded-in and assembly features), while allowing for thinner walls. The FR82G30V0 grade achieves UL 94 V-0 fire retardancy at 1.5-mm wall thickness; the other grade, FR82G33V1 is rated V-1.

Another supplier of engineering thermoplastics, Ticona, recently introduced eight hydrolysis-resistant Celanex PBT grades that meet the USCAR (United States Council for Automotive Research) Class II: 100C and Class III: 125C performance standards for electrical components. Unmodified PBT works well at the lowest USCAR level (Class I: 85C), but the combination of humidity and higher temperatures have until recently proved too much for PBT on parts requiring a higher USCAR classification; adhesion between PBT and reinforcement materials diminished as temperatures approached PBT''s glass-transition temperature. The new grades extend PBT''s potential use to both Class II: 100C and Class III: 125C, and one grade is being tested for its suitability in the most rigorous requirement, Class IV: 155C compliance. DuPont, Wilmington, DE, USA; + 1 302-774-1000; www.dupont.com; Ticona, Kelsterbach, Germany; +49 69 30516299; www.ticona.com

Specialty PP grade targets nonpressure pipes

Pipes made with high-molecular-weight PP block copolymer grade 330-NA00 are more durable than competitive clay or concrete pipe systems. The material offers the same MFR of .3g/10 minutes (2.16 kg at 230C) as its predecessor grade, 433-NA00, but its flexural modulus (1550 MPa) is higher and impact strength is similar. Charpy notched impact at –20C is 6.5 kJ. It also has long-term heat stability to insure good processability, says David Cartwright, market development manager-polymers Europe at BP. He says the market is demanding PP grades with higher stiffness. This grade will be officially launched at K 2004. BP plc, London, England; +44 7748 112288; www.bppetrochemicals.com

Elastomers extend PS appeal

Two thermoplastic elastomers are marketed for impact modification of clear polystyrene in molded parts. Finaclear 636 was launched specifically for molding transparent coat hangers. It can be blended with up to 40% crystal PS. The second grade, 609, is said to have more fluidity than standard thermoplastic elastomers to allow easier processing. Typical applications are in food containers, desktop accessories, and hinged applications such as lidded boxes. Atofina, Paris, France; +33 1 4900 8080; www.atofina.com

Polystyrene provides impact, heat resistance

Edistir R850E is an improved, so-called "super-impact" polystyrene (PS), with good heat-resistance properties. It is suitable, even in blends with high levels of general-purpose PS, for thermoformed cups, dairy tubs, lids, and flatware. The same grade can be injection molded in medium thickness for disposable food container applications requiring toughness. Polimeri Europe, SpA, San Donato Milanese (MI), Italy; +39 02 5201; www.polimerieuropa.com

Lower acetaldehydes in PET improve water flavor

By lowering inherent acetaldehyde levels, a new grade of PET specially engineered for bottled water reduces aftertastes that can be found in bottles using other resin with greater amounts of acetaldehyde. Laser+ W PET is produced by DAK Resins, a division of DAK Americas, which was once part of DuPont. In addition to low acetaldehyde levels, the resin reportedly allows processing flexibility for a variety of container designs and sizes. Improved performance in injection stretch blowmolding machines, better color retention, and thicker walls are also possible without losing clarity, all while maintaining bi-axial stretch.

The product has been selling commercially since Q4 2003, according to company spokesmen, and it''s currently in taste tests by several large-brand companies in the bottled water market. Higher acetaldehyde levels can be drawn out during the stretch blowmolding process as preforms are heated, but DAK says they''ve reduced inherent levels by half, eliminating aftertaste. By being able to withstand a higher processing temperature, DAK says cycle times during molding of preforms can be reduced by one or two seconds. The resin is also said to conduct heat well, allowing it to reheat in blowmolding machines quickly.

In the overall PET market, after dipping in 2003 when a sizable chunk of capacity came online in North America, PET producers have announced a pricing increase of $.12/lb. This hasn''t slowed consumption, which DAK hasestimated as increasing by 7.5% to 9%/yr. DAK Americas LLC, Charlotte, NC, USA; +1 877-432-2766; www.dakamericas.com

ADDITIVES

Nucleating technology improves PP processing

Hyperform HPN68L nucleating agent is now available as a masterbatch called HI5-5 that can be introduced during injection or extrusion to produce high-speed nucleation. Concentrate form allows processors to determine the optimal approach to boost productivity and enhance quality. Previously, nucleating technology was added during the manufacturing stage, which Jeff Jones, Milliken Chemical''s global marketing manager for the product line, says resulted in limited options for use.

"With the concentrated form, plastics processors have increased flexibility in how they use high-speed nucleation. This should open up [new] options for manufacturing opaque PP products," Jones says. Dosing is similar to adding color or additive concentrates.

HI5-5 is said to cut cycle times of opaque grades by up to 25% compared to non-nucleated PP products.

It also can reportedly enhance product quality through improved dimensional stability and physical property balance. Milliken Chemcial, Spartanburg, SC, USA; +1 864-503-2200; www.millikenchemical.com

Additive extends chains in reclaimed polymers

Processors hoping to use post-consumer reclaimed polyester and other polycondensate resins have been forced, because of a degradation in the materials'' mechanical properties, to reduce usage or focus on low-value-added applications. A new family of chain extenders can now enhance recycled condensation polymers such as polyesters, polyamides, polyurethanes, and polycarbonates.

CESA-extend, a joint introduction by Clariant Masterbatches and Johnson Polymer, is a family of additive masterbatches that can relink chains within the polymer matrix, leading to increased molecular weight, as well as improved mechanical and rheological properties and processing, allowing recycled polymer use in more demanding applications.

The additive is based on a proprietary, patented technology consisting of multifunction acrylic oligomers that are used in condensation polymers in low concentrations to enhance their properties. Clariant Masterbatches and Johnson Polymers appreciate the market for such an additive, noting that 700 million lb of recycled PET is consumed annually in the U.S. The companies say that their multifunctional oligomeric chain extender has shown increases in melt viscosity, IV, and strength similar to that for solid-state polymerization.

Compounders can benefit from the lower moisture sensitivity and improved hydrolytic stability, as well as augmented compatibility between other types of plastics such as PC/ABS and PET/Nylon. The additive''s benefits for materials, like improved melt strength, are applicable for sheet extrusion, fiber spinning, and extrusion blowmolding applications.

The polymer extender causes some long-chain branching, but is said to have significantly reduced any tendencies towards gel formation in the final material. Clariant Additive Masterbatches, Winchester, VA, USA; +1 540-665-1865; www.clariant.masterbatches.com; Johnson Polymer, Sturtevant, WI, USA; +1 866-290-5611; www.johnsonpolymer.com

Chinaplas consolidates status as leading mainland show

Chinaplas 2004 opens in Shanghai on June 29, hosting more exhibitors (an estimated 800) and occupying more floor space (around 60,000 sq m; 645,000 sq ft) than any of the previous 17 editions.

Widely acknowledged as the leading international plastics event in Greater China, the four-day Chinaplas show at the Shanghai New International Expo Center (SNIEC) in Pudong continues to enjoy endorsement from Euromap, and this year it will be held for the 18th time.

Chinaplas 2004 will be 65% larger in exhibition space compared to its last iteration in Shanghai in 2002. It is also larger than Chinaplas 2003, held last December in Beijing, where 656 exhibitors occupied a total exhibition area of 40,000 sq m (430,000 sq ft). The first Chinaplas, in Beijing in 1983, attracted slightly more than 100 exhibitors.

This year, there will be eight country pavilions (Austria, Canada, PR China, Germany, Italy, Taiwan province, U.K., and U.S.). Symposia and technical seminars will also take place, with topics such as Application of Plastics in Auto parts Production: How to Improve Efficiency & Enhance Competitiveness; Production of Plastic & Rubber Building Materials—New Trends and New Technologies; and The Latest Technology & Materials for Plastic Packaging in Food and Beverage Industries taking center stage.

The Fourth International Thixomolding Magnesium Conference will also be held during Chinaplas on July 1. The majority of laptop computers and mobile phones are produced in this region, and many of those are produced using the thixotropic injection molding process, according to Stephen LeBeau, VP of sales and marketing at process licensee Thixomat. This makes Chinaplas an ideal venue as the majority of Thixomat''s licensees are plastic injection molders.

International exhibitors have traditionally dominated Chinaplas, but the number of local enterprises participating in the show is also growing. Organizer Adsale Exhibition Services predicts their number will at least triple at this year''s show. Among them is Keya, China''s largest manufacturer of compounding extruders. Coperion intends to acquire a controlling share of the firm by mid-year. Keya equipment is used for a variety of tasks, including compounding of PE, PP, PVC, PC, EVA, and TPR.

NFM (stand 2J31) will introduce several new extrusion developments at Chinaplas, including the Welding Engineers Series of counter-rotating, non-intermeshing twin-screw units, designed to accommodate a diverse variety of applications including devolatilization, reactive extrusion, latex coagulation, and long-fiber processing. Extruders are available with screw diameters of 20 to 250 mm. One specialized application is the processing of wood/plastic composite materials.

Extrusion Dies Industries (EDI, stand 2D31) will highlight advances in flat-die operation that enable extrusion processors to expand the range of cast film and sheet adjustments available without shutting down the die. One is the new Autoflex VI-L system, which combines a lever action with the thermal actuation that is standard on other Autoflex systems to move the flexible upper lip of the die as much as twice the maximum distance of EDI''s Autoflex VI-R. The speed of lip adjustment is also double. This makes automated gauge control accessible for the first time to manufacturers of thermoformed packaging and containers, thin-gauge glazing, and other light sheet up to 3.8 mm thick

In the injection field, Hong Kong''s Tat Ming Technology is introducing a triple-pump version of the CAP32, an injection molding machine dedicated to making bottle caps. Equipped with a 32-cavity, 1.6g, 28-mm cap mold from Italian moldmaker Gefit, a cycle time of 4.5 seconds has been achieved. "Local moldmakers do not have the technology to make fast-cycle molds," says Kevin Tong, general manager at Tat Ming, citing the rationale behind partnering with a foreign moldmaker. "Because of this, local machine makers do not aim at making fast-cycle machines, and large processors thus rely on imported machines and molds to cater to high productivity requirements." Tong says that with the Tat Ming-Gefit combination, investment cost is essentially cut in half.

In auxiliaries, Maguire Asia (stand 4C05) will highlight the diversity of its LPD resin drier range for injection molders of tiny optical parts to high-volume producers of PET bottles. Maguire Asia started operations in March as the region''s first direct subsidiary of Maguire Products Inc. A second facility was established in Shanghai (see p. 14 this issue). Included in Maguire''s dryer range are four models, the LPD-30, -100, -200, and -1000, accommodating processing-machine throughputs of up to 13.6 kg/hr for the smallest unit, to 450 kg/hr for the largest. The dryers can reportedly dry resin six times faster, which reduces energy consumption by 80%, and subjects polymer to 80% less exposure at elevated temperatures.

In the testing field, Instron (stand 2Q05) is featuring its 3300 Series single-column testing systems for evaluating the tensile, compression, and flexural properties of plastics and elastomers. Instron''s 3300 Series includes a load frame with integrated control electronics, a load cell, surface mount circuitry, and Series IX materials testing software.

Diverse material options

PE supplier Borouge (stand 3C01) will focus on the introduction of its Borstar technology to the Chinese market. The technology produces bimodal products that combine good mechanical strength and product processability. They are used in packaging and pipe applications, among others. Hubert Puchner, CEO of Borouge Pte Ltd, says, "In flexible packaging, consumers are becoming more sophisticated in their purchasing habits, which means that attractive, quality packaging is needed. The growth in the domestic market complements China''s packaging export market which is already quite developed." Borouge supplies products from a complex in Ruwais. By the end of 2005, capacity will have been expanded from 450,000 tonnes/yr to 580,000 tonnes/yr.

MBA Polymers Inc. (MBA) and Guangzhou Iron & Steel Enterprises Holdings Ltd. (GISE) have formed a joint venture to operate a plastics recycling facility in Nansha, China. The joint venture plans to begin operation of a 40,000-tonnes/yr plant by early 2005. The new company, called GISE-MBA New Plastics Technology Co. Ltd., will process highly mixed plastics resulting from the legislated take-back and recycling of durable goods such as appliances and electrical equipment. This recycling is taking place on a very large scale in places like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, as well as Europe.

In engineering plastics, DSM (stand 3F21) will feature new developments in materials and applications for its Stanyl polyamide 46, Arnitel TPE, Akulon polyamide 6, and Arnite PBT and PET resins, including examples of metal substitution in automotive applications. In the electronics field, new generation connectors employing Stanyl will be featured. The material''s heat resistance makes it suitable for high-temperature, lead-free soldering.

Nanjing Jinling Opta Polymer Co. is a joint venture of Sinopec Jinling Petrochemical Corp. and Finland''s Optatech Corp. The joint venture employs leading solid-state polymerization (SSP) and dynamic vulcanization technology from Finland to manufacture a wide range thermoplastic elastomer materials sold under the Pacrel brand. Pacrel TPV performs like thermoset rubber but processes like thermoplastic, and can be used in construction, medical, automobiles, and appliances, for example. Properties include rubber-like properties between –60 and 125C, and the ability to extrude, inject, or blowmold under conditions typical for polyolefins.

On display at Maillefer (stand 2S01) will be PE cross-linking solutions for the manufacture of plastic tube, wire, and cable. The firm will unveil its IRPex-A infrared system for inline curing of cables and tubes. The new method completely eliminates the process step of hot baths or saunas.

Stephen Moore [email protected]

Plastics-metal innovation has promising future

FRPs IN HIGH-PERFORMANCE JOINT

Materials joining technology company TWI has developed a surface treatment technique and joining process that produces high-performance joints between plastics and metals. Early tests show that specimens of steel bonded to a glass fiber-reinforced thermoset polyester (FRP) composite made using the Comeld process exhibit failure in a consistent and predictable manner in the metal part of the sample rather than at the joint or in the composite.

FRPs offer high strength-to-weight ratios, but often must be joined to other materials, usually metals, the Cambridge, England-based TWI says. But composite-to-metal joints present significant design challenges to achieve high levels of mechanical performance. "Designers have been reticent to design structures incorporating joints, or have adopted highly conservative designs that increase weight and negate some of the benefits of using composite materials," notes TWI.

At the heart of Comeld is a metal surface pretreatment called Surfi-Sculpt, patented by TWI. A powered beam (early work is with an electron beam) produces what Comeld senior project leader Faye Smith calls ''proggles'' ("it started as a joke but the name stuck") small teeth that key onto the composite part when it is formed around the metal part (see photo). The resulting joint fails at a much higher load and absorbs far more energy before failure than a conventional joint of the same dimensions.

Surfi-Sculpt is a high-speed and highly controllable process. The sample in the photo, 25 by 35 mm, was treated in around eight seconds. The distance between the teeth can be controlled, as can the height of individual teeth, Smith says. E-beam equipment is expensive, but Smith says she knows of several firms interested in doing contract work.

Comeld can be used with a wide range of thermoplastics and thermosets , and in a range of processes. Thermosets can be molded around the metal or they can be preformed and then adhesively bonded. Composites with thermoplastics can be produced by insert injection molding.

TWI is launching a two-year project to investigate the application of Comeld with a variety of material combinations. "We are looking for industry to come and cooperate with us in this project from the very early stage," says Smith. "We have already had huge amounts of interest following presentations in the U.K. and Japan."

In Brief

Demand, costs are fine; margins stink

Polyolefins producer Borealis (Kongens Lyngby, Denmark) says that despite 2003 results showing stronger demand and lower operating costs, the full year proved a disappointment. John Talyor, Borealis'' chief executive, says the war in Iraq, the SARS outbreak, excess global polyolefin capacity, high feedstock prices, and generally weak European economies caused "the lowest industry margins in a decade."

Spartech buys BASF''s PS specialties

The flame retardant and antistatic polystyrene compounds business of BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany) has been sold for an undisclosed price to Spartech (Clayton, MO). BASF is closing PS compound production in Ludwigshafen and transferring it to Spartech''s plant in Donchery, France.

SPI plans China trip

In the face of a widening trade chasm with China, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI; Washington, DC), in conjunction with U.S. Dept. of Commerce, has announced plans for a trade mission to China that will include visits with processors in Guangzhou and Shanghai and admission to ChinaPlas 2004 in late June.

Attendees will have the opportunity to visit Chinese government agencies, industry associations, processors, and plastics training facilities. Matchmaking conferences will be used to pair attendees with appropriate Chinese counterparts. Costs, which include hotel, receptions, interpreters, and air and ground transportation, are $6500 for SPI members and $9500 for non-members. The application deadline is June 4 for the June 21 to July 1 trade mission.

Steel company gets in on hybrid molding

Anglo-Dutch steel company Corus has developed a process for injection molding thermoplastics onto steel sheet that is cut to shape and formed in the mold itself. It says Polymer Injection Forming (PIF), which it will license, "is expected to lead to a new era of innovative consumer and other products." Potential applications include mobile phones, consumer electronics, light switches, IT equipment, kitchen appliances, cutlery, automotive components, and garden furniture. It says several international consumer product manufacturers have already expressed interest in the process.

In addition to yielding parts that have the strength of metal and the form freedom of plastic, PIF can also provide electromagnetic shielding. "The polymer can protect the steel''s sharp edges and is strong enough to be used as a hinge, spring, slide, or lock," Corus adds.

The level of adhesion can be fully controlled during the production process, even locally. This feature can be used to make springs, locks, and other moving parts in one production process, eliminating the need for costly collapsible cores in the mold.

German chancellor rips offshoring

German government officials and business reps are sparring over who gets the most blame for the growing number of jobs, many in plastics processing, being exported to developing countries. In an interview with the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German chancellor Gerhard Schroder condemned the transfer of jobs to cheaper offshore locations as "unpatriotic." This followed an interview with the leader of the chamber of commerce and industry (DIHK), who advised German companies to "use the opportunities offered by the eastward enlargement of the European Union," rather than "wait for better policies at home."

The comments from Ludwig Gerog Braun, president of the DIHK, are among those of business leaders who have criticized recent government measures including ecological energy taxes, penalties for employers not training enough apprentices, and the country''s high wage and tax structure.

Klaus Probst, chairman of automotive supplier Leoni (Nuremberg), says it will be "difficult to maintain [many] jobs in Germany." The processor of wiring and automotive harness systems has already abandoned automotive cable production in Brake, Germany and transferred this to Poland and Hungary "for logistical and cost reasons." Last year, Leoni moved mobile telecom cable production to China. Only 13% of Leoni''s workforce remains employed within Germany.

SPE boss: Bankruptcy talk is off the mark

Though there may be disagreement in the ranks, Donna Davis, president of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), says the group''s finances are in better shape now than for some years.

In an interview at an SPE thermoforming conference in Italy in March, she said, "We''ve made significant progress strengthening the financial position of the SPE . . . For the first time in many years we will have retained earnings [of $200,000] for 2003." Money will be used to support the group''s new product development, particularly projects to boost membership, she says.

A newsletter e-mailed by the group''s PVC division in late 2003 cited cost-cutting moves as necessary to prevent bankruptcy of the SPE; newsletters from other divisions have also highlighted the extremely poor financial position.

Questioned about the bankruptcy reference, Davis explains, "We are an association of members, and in that sense every member can speak his mind," but says in fact the situation was never so dire.

However, she says that SPE did not return rebates to its divisions early this year, as it often has in the past. For some of the smaller SPE divisions such as the rotational molding one, which had planned on nearly 25% of its income for the 2003-2004 budget coming from the rebate, this decision could prove detrimental.

SPE membership has remained flat in North America but is growing elsewhere, says Davis. In a February report to members, Susan Oderwald, SPE deputy executive director, wrote, "The largest opportunity for SPE growth is overseas. If SPE chooses not to fill its international mandate, it must then choose to become a smaller and a more niche service organization." Davis says the group fully intends to pursue international growth.

Giant die-head set to produce 2m-diameter pipe

Processor Pipelife (Surnadal, Norway) has ordered a 2000- mm diameter pipe die to produce high-density polyethylene pipe, an increase of 400 mm in diameter from its largest existing size. Pipes will be extruded directly into the sea (November 2002 MP, p. 39; MPI p. 47) for easy transport. The 50-tonne die, built by Reifenhauser (Troisdorf, Germany), should allow Pipelife to penetrate into pipe dimensions which previously were confined to steel or concrete. The extrusion line consists of a single-screw extruder with a screw diameter of 150 mm and an L/D ratio of 33:1.

Arburg tech event pulls them in–again

German injection molding machine maker Arburg attracted over 3400 visitors (1200 from outside the country) to its three-day open house in Lossburg in late March, more than ever before. Some 16,000 customers have been to the annual event since it started in 1999. There were more than 40 machine exhibits, with an emphasis on modular drives. Arburg is planning to hold a multicomponent molding event in June.

Structured competition

Steadily encroaching on metal and other materials in more and more challenging applications, plastics used in products as diverse as tractor hoods and running boards were showcased in the Society of the Plastics Industry''s (SPI; Washington, DC) Structural Plastics Awards (March 21-23, Charlotte, NC). Bemis Mfg. (Sheboygan Falls, WI) took home three awards for a John Deere tractor enclosure, tractor top hood, and front-end for an off-road Gator vehicle.

Top honors, however, went to a cowl for a four-stroke outboard boat engine entered by Mercury Marine (Fond Du Lac, WI) and molded by Bemis, which won the Conference and People''s Choice awards. The 11.3-lb (5.13-kg) engine cover is said to be the largest injection molded nylon part ever produced. Replacing an SMC cowl, the nylon component was scoop shaped and measured 851 by 582 mm, with a depth of 417 mm. It weighed 3 lb (20%) less than its predecessor and was reinforced by 33% glass.

All told, the competition featured 62 parts, 36 of which were injection molded, along with RIM, blowmolded, rotomolded, and extruded entries. Gas-assist was used in 10 parts, and direct long-fiber compounding was applied in several, including a running board for the Ford F-250/-350 trucks, molded by Composite Products Inc. (Winona, MN). Using long-fiber technology, the PP part started as an extruded log with glass strands providing reinforcement. It was then transfer molded into one part that ultimately combined 43 components into one and reduced overall weight by 30 lb.

Group starts blow- molding JV in China

A group of six German engineers has joined forces in Hong Kong to form Dekuma Ltd., a joint venture with local injection machine supplier Welltech Machinery Ltd. Under the agreement, Dekuma will manufacture extrusion blowmolding machines and polyolefin pipe extrusion lines in China. Technical Chief Consultant Karl-Heinz Roesing says, "Dekuma operates two subsidiaries; BMPR GbR in Bonn, Germany, which specializes in design and consultancy services for plastics processing machinery, and manufacturing arm Dekuma-Welltech Machinery Ltd., located at Welltech''s plant site in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. BMPR will furnish Dekuma-Welltech with overall design know-how, while the latter will handle detailed machine design and production. "

The first blowmolding machine, a 10-tonne unit, is due off the production line mid-year, and the production target is 35 machines by year-end. A 3-tonne blow-molding machine should be on show at K 2004, and production of a 20-tonne machine is also planned. Initially, machines will be sold in China.

Clariant initiates Asian masterbatch investment effort

The investment spotlight for Clariant''s masterbatches business is firmly on Asia this year, with half of the $35 million in capital investment planned for 2004 allocated to the region. "In all, 11 new masterbatch lines will be added in the Asia-Pacific region this year," says Gary Fielding, Asia-Pacific director at Clariant Masterbatches (Thailand) Ltd., which is the business unit''s regional headquarters. This will take the regional line count up to about 110.

The firm plans to triple capacity at its Shanghai compounding facility from 2000 to 6000 tonnes/yr by relocating to a new site. Two more lines will also be added in Malaysia, and capacity will be added in Taiwan and South Korea. A new technical center will open near Melbourne, Australia, while the continent''s three lab sites will be upgraded. The Singapore facility also is in line for a factory upgrade.

This follows significant investment in 2003, which also saw 11 lines added. Lines and a new color center were added in Singapore, and the lab was upgraded. Malaysian capacity was doubled in 2003, partly through transfer of existing lines from Thailand, while a new line was also installed in Indonesia.

Clariant established a new facility in Beijing in January. It also opened a masterbatch facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in December 2003.

Maguire establishes subsidiary in Asia

Maguire Products, Inc. (Aston, PA) has formed its first wholly owned Asian subsidiary in Singapore. A second facility in Shanghai will open shortly. It expects sales in Asia to quintuple in just two or three years. The new companies will provide sales service, technical support, and warehousing for a range of materials handling auxiliary equipment.

Maguire Products Asia replaces an entity operated by an agent and will be a larger and more comprehensive operation, according to Hubert Nerlich, managing director of Maguire Asia. "We will triple our sales force in China alone," Nerlich says, "and dramatically cut lead times for customers by maintaining extensive inventories of machinery and parts in both Singapore and Shanghai. In addition, each location will include facilities for demonstrations of equipment, trial runs of customers'' materials, and training of customer personnel."

The current staff at the new 500-sq-m (5380-sq-ft) Singapore headquarters of Maguire Asia consists of six sales and technical experts. Four similarly qualified people will operate the Shanghai facility when it opens, with another four to six to be added there in the coming year.

Asian lab equipment maker plans major expansion

Thai laboratory extrusion line manufacturer Labtech Engineering (Bangkok) plans to double production capacity by 2005 due to increased demand from global customers that include Clariant, Ampacet, and A. Schulman.

The supplier currently manufactures 20 test lines per month, including single-screw compounders, single- and multilayer film blowing lines, lab-scale high-speed mixers, single and multilayer chill roll casting lines, and bottle blowing machines. At the recent T-Plas show in Bangkok, Labtech unveiled its first laboratory twin-screw extruder.

"Around 80% of production finds its way to Europe," says company president Peter Jurgensen. He adds, "We are negotiating with some big names in extrusion who want to outsource production of their lab equipment." Labtech also wants to move into rheological testing equipment.

Restructuring at SMS plastics machinery

German engineering company SMS is planning a "radical restructuring" of its plastics machinery division, which includes extrusion and injection molding brand names Battenfeld, Battenfeld Gloucester, American Maplan, Cincinnati Extrusion, and SMS Folientechnik.

Announcing the move during a late March press conference in Dusseldorf, SMS chairman Heinrich Weiss also said his family late last year acquired a controlling stake in SMS, buying out the shares owned by German conglomerate MAN. In comments reported by U.K. trade magazine Plastics & Rubber Weekly, Weiss also said the firm had cancelled discussions for a merger between the SMS plastics machinery division and Mannesmann Plastics Machinery (MPM, Munich). Such a merger—effectively an acquisition by MPM—would have been huge; MPM includes Berstorff, Billion, Demag Plastics Machinery, Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik and Netstal.

The SMS spokesman in Dusseldorf refused to field questions about the restructuring and on the canceled sale. In 1999 SMS tried to sell its Battenfeld injection machinery business to Madison Capital Partners, Chicago, IL, but that deal also was not completed.

Plastics machinery accounted for €438 million of SMS''s €1.933 billion in 2003 orders. SMS derives most of its sales from machinery for metallurgy and rolling mills for metal processing, but the plastics division performed poorly enough to be singled out numerous times by Weiss. Losses last year of €19 million were blamed entirely on the plastics machinery division due to its "exceptionally poor performance" as a result of "serious management shortcoming." Helmut Eschwey, the plastics division''s previous chief, left the firm last summer to take charge of Heraeus, the world''s second-largest supplier of industrial precious metals.

Early this year, the firm announced that former Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik CEO Wilhelm Schroder had arrived to run SMS''s plastics machinery division. It''s a small world; Eschwey replaced Horst Heidsieck, who became CEO of Demag Holding, Luxembourg, a seven-firm group that includes Mannesmann Plastics Machinery.

IT: Dial-up help is easy, but processors remain wary

Problem solving via phone modem or the Internet should be making plastics processors'' lives easier, as remote diagnostics systems are a standard feature on most of today''s lines.

For example, the C4 microprocessor controller on Krauss-Maffei (Munich, Germany) pipe, profile, sheet, and compounding lines can be configured for remote diagnosis via modem to transfer bidirectional operating data from the customer''s machine to a service center. There, service engineers can troubleshoot and pinpoint faults or download new software.

"There are two advantages to such systems," says Chuck Sepkaski, sales engineer at compounding equipment maker Farrel Corp. (Ansonia, CT). "It eliminates the transport and accommodation costs of a service engineer sent sometimes halfway around the world to solve a minor matter. But, more important, a processor''s downtime is cut to perhaps two hours instead of several days," he says.

Farrel''s CARD (Computer Assisted Remote Diagnostics) system has been on the market for about nine years, says Sepkaski. It allows process and control troubleshooting, data evaluation, and equipment performance optimization. Sepkaski says he finds processors in Asia and Mexico more often take advantage of the system than do their counterparts in other parts of the world.

The CARD system operates much like competitive remote diagnostic systems. The customer calls a technical service center to relate an equipment problem. If this can''t be solved on the phone, the customer gives the service engineer a password to access his line. The machine operating data is transferred to the service center and analyzed on an identical PLC (programmable logic controller). Some remote diagnostics only support the viewing of parameters, so a service engineer on a second telephone line must instruct the operator on what measures to take. Other systems allow actual machine manipulation.

Duane T. Delaney, director of technical services at compounder The Plastics Group of America (TPG; Woonsocket, RI), says the CARD system helps reduce downtime by providing immediate assistance with any problem. "It also facilitates immediate downloading of software upgrades," he says.

Access anxiety

Equipment makers, however, report that although processors are taken by the idea of instant service, many do not take advantage of it. Extruder manufacturer Leistritz Extrusionstechnik (Nurnberg, Germany), whose Remote Service uses radio signals to connect the extruder''s PLC to the modem since phone connections are often not available at the extruder, reports that just 5% of customers actively use the system.

"My impression is that compounders seldom use this feature, not because they don''t want it, but because of fear of unauthorized use of their proprietary information. They are very cautious," says Michael Thummert, IT manager at Leistritz.

Eike Wedell, general manager-film, at equipment builder Reifenhauser (Troisdorf, Germany), echoes Thummert''s assessment. He says processors he works with are often afraid to allow even their equipment suppliers too much access to their proprietary processes and recipes. Reifenhauser offers two in-house-developed remote diagnostics systems for all their automated lines. One allows Reifenhauser engineers to access and read data only, while the other permits supervised data manipulation.

"The problem is fear, and we equipment makers have our work cut out for us to convince [processors] of the benefits and need for such systems," Wedell says. "I suspect that in Asia the willingness to accept such technology may be greater than in Europe."

Fear of hackers being able to access a processor''s system is the reason why extrusion-line maker Windmoller & Hollscher (W&H; Lengerich, Germany) has been unable to convince customers to use the Internet to connect to its Modem M remote diagnostic system. It is instead used via telephone modem, which Herbert Fischer, division manager operations-extrusion equipment, says many customers consider safer.

The Modem M system replaces the company''s VRD (Visual Remote Diagnostics) system (June 1999 MP/MPI), which allowed telephone data transmission to the W&H technical center—including digital photos taken by the processor showing a suspected fault. Engineers could then pinpoint, and mark with a mouse click, possible trouble zones for the processor to check. It also included a chat-room message box. At the time of its introduction, the system was revolutionary, but has since been superseded by advances in everyday telecommunications and video links, Fischer says.

Werner Bamberger, head of automation and electronics at tenter-frame and extrusion-line manufacturer Bruckner Maschinenbau (Siegsdorf, Germany), says his company''s remote diagnostics system operates via ISDN phone line rather than Internet.

"Our system is capable of operating via the Internet, but we don''t have any customer who does it yet," he says. "Most have expressed fear of hackers and other problems running via the worldwide web."

One of Bamberger''s customers, Dubai Poly Film (Dubai, U.A.E.), the Middle East''s largest biaxial oriented polypropylene (BOPP) film producer, uses the remote diagnostics system on its two lines (a third is being installed), mainly for problems related to software and electrical/electronics rather than mechanical difficulties, which onsite operators can generally handle themselves, says Michael Sekora, plant manager.

"Problems are usually solved in a matter of minutes, something very important to us. If there is a software problem, we are able to directly contact the software engineer at Bruckner involved in its design," Sekora says.

Despite its advantages, Sekora says he also suspects remote diagnostics are less used worldwide than most people imagine. "There is always the issue of trust, despite all the confidentiality agreements signed between companies. Processors just don''t want outsiders looking at their resin recipes and outputs," he says.

Sekora says he doesn''t believe a hacker could really do much with the data he might be able to access through the Internet. However, he says there is a chance someone could foul up a machine''s control system to bring production to a standstill.

"There is a general mistrust among processors of what will happen to data that is accessed online. It''s the same here. Our owner, rightfully, wants to limit any risk to the minimum," he says.

Stewart Carlisle, senior sales engineer at tenter-frame and winder manufacturer Marshall & Williams Plastics (Providence, RI) says he has never heard of a customer turning down the remote diagnostics feature in a line. Some will just not use it, often because they have not reached a level of sophistication that requires this service, he says.

Less than 5% of his customers regularly take advantage, although some do use the system to update software. Because the number is so small, the company, along with others, such as W&H, does not offer a round-the-clock remote diagnostics service center—it''s staffed only during regular business hours. "We saw more demand for remote diagnostics during the pre-Y2K period than in day-to-day operations," Carlisle observes.

The future of remote diagnostics?

Tenter-frame manufacturer Bruckner Maschinenbau (Siegsdorf, Germany) expects to introduce a new feature to its remote diagnostics system at K 2004. The system is now in beta testing with customers. If a line in China, for example, senses a fault somewhere along the line from extruder to winder, it will automatically dial up the service center in Siegsdorf without human intervention. The error will be analyzed and corrective measures transmitted back to the line for automatic implementation. A report is sent to the processor regarding the procedure, describing when and why it was conducted.

This method is designed to eliminate human error, reduce reaction time, and be implemented as preventive maintenance, says Werner Bamberger, head of automation/electronics at Bruckner. "A self-diagnostic system requires only new software and can work on existing [Bruckner] lines," he says.

Robert Colvin [email protected]

Contact information

Bruckner Maschinenbau GmbH   www.brueckner.de
Dubai Poly Film Co. (LLC)   www.dubaipolyfilm.com
Farrel Corp.   www.farrel.com
Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH   www.krauss-maffei.de
Leistritz AG   www.leistritz-extrusion.de
Marshall & Williams Plastics   www.mwplastics.com
Reifenhauser GmbH & Co. KG Maschinenfabrik   www.reifenhauser.com
TPG, The Plastics Group of America   www.plasticsgroup.com
Windmoller & Holscher   www.wuh-lengerich.de

Will manufacturing growth slow as energy prices jump?

The beleaguered U.S. manufacturing sector can take comfort in the latest numbers released for February, most of which confirm the U.S. recovery continues to gain momentum. The view is supported by several standard economic gauges, including figures for housing, consumer spending, wholesale inventories, durable goods sales, and industrial production.

Yet there are storm clouds—the sharp rise in energy prices could very well cut into the U.S. consumer''s ability to expand purchases of consumer goods. The same energy costs will also impact profitability for plastics processors and cause transportation costs to rise.

Plastics processors have had virtually no pricing power for several years. An inability to raise prices means they won''t be able to pass on the sharp increase in energy costs.

Key economic trends

While the new housing numbers showed a decline for the second straight month in February, the annual construction rate of 1.86 million units remains 13.1% higher than the 2003 pace. Considering that sales of existing homes reached a six-month high, it is probable that weather, and not economics, slowed new construction. Regardless, it remains clear that demand continues to outweigh supply in the Northeast and Midwest.

The residential housing market typically is the primary engine driving household and kitchen appliance sales. However, in recent years, product and design innovation have also emerged as significant drivers, especially for products like state-of-the-art refrigerators.

Globally, growth in appliances and household goods is expected to be heavily influenced by increased demand in the developing Asia-Pacific and Eastern European markets as a new and growing consumer class begins to flex its financial muscles. As a result, there might be some opportunity for North American suppliers of plastic components for appliances to increase exports.

February auto sales advanced by 2.7%, keeping on par with general expectations for 2004. Despite projections for increased unit sales in 2004, profits for Detroit''s Big Three and their suppliers are expected to remain low as U.S. automakers struggle to hold on to diminishing shares in the U.S. market. In this environment, plastic parts suppliers can expect to see customers'' demands escalating, an unhappy trend most recently exemplified by Ford''s draconian new supplier contracts. They stipulate, among other things, that orders can be dropped at any time and for no reason.

Retail sales, which account for roughly two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity, again rose higher than expected in February, climbing .06%. February sales were largely propelled by a 2.5% rebound in the durable goods market. The jump in retail sales followed a .2% rise in January; both months are traditionally slow times for retail sales.

The retail sales figures exemplify a growing consumer confidence in the economic recovery, a sentiment more fully expressed by sales of big tickets items, including a 9.9% jump in transportation equipment sales. Manufacturers can expect this trend to accelerate as consumers again spend a projected $125 billion in tax refunds.

The wholesale inventory-to-sales ratio continues to remain at record lows, despite February''s .4% increase in industrial production, marking the 10th month of production advances.

Projections for now

Healthy sales figures at the consumer level assure us that inventories will rise; the only question is when. While a significant jump could occur at any moment, it is more likely that restocking will be gradual, and that inventories will rise with employment figures. A successful turnover and draw-down in Iraq, as well as confidence in the election year outcome, could help accelerate this trend.

Energy costs should remain fairly stable, yet very high, despite fears over recent revelations that Shell Oil (and to a lesser extent, El Paso) overstated its reserves by about 20%. Many plastics processors may even benefit from a recent jump in Chinese energy prices. Several Chinese firms have suffered from spot market purchases of energy.

Manufacturing jobs were again cut in February for the 43rd straight month, yet at a much slower pace than has previously been observed. Jobs are the final piece required to complete the economic recovery puzzle, and their failure to rebound has troubled many economists. U.S. manufacturers that have remained standing, it appears, have increased productivity and eliminated unnecessary costs. Still, businesses will soon reach the point where demand continues to rise, productivity is maximized, and hiring must begin anew. One-third of the CEOs recently polled said their enterprises will reach this point in 2004.

Our growth projections still hold, but may be lowered if energy prices and issues such as Iraq change for the worse.

And abroad...

China remains a force with which to be reckoned. How much of the rhetoric is self-fulfilling, or how much it has blinded investors to China''s serious economic problems, is anyone''s guess.

What is beyond debate is its impact on U.S. plastics manufacturing, as suppliers like Clayton, MO''s Spartech Corp., or Fairlawn, OH''s Schulman Inc. follow customers overseas. Reflecting this trend:

  • U.S. exports of plastics and rubber machinery have skyrocketed. When compared to 2003, sales in this category grew by almost 500% in January.
  • According to a report by Techno Information Center (TIC; Tokyo) and Plastics & Chemicals Intelligence Asia (PCIA; Singapore), and as discussed in the March issue of Modern Plastics, China''s demand for PC resin is expected to increase at an annual rate of 10.4% between 2002 and 2008.
  • As China and India become manufacturing behemoths, their seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials is expected to continue to lift global prices for many materials. Some analysts fear that a similarly negative trend will develop in the energy market, which is most likely the leading threat to the current U.S. recovery.

    In Europe, where the inflation rate is now well below the 2% ceiling set by the European Central Bank (ECB), it is likely the ECB will eventually cut interest rates in 2004 in an effort to help boost weak export markets, which have been hindered by the souring Euro. An interest rate cut would depreciate the Euro, making U.S. exports less competitive. A similar move is expected to be made by the Bank of Canada.

    Finally, many businesses and governments around the globe are beginning to express concern over how the U.S. will chose to enforce a new law of the sea, establishing specific counterterrorism requirements that must be met by world governments, port authorities, and shipping companies. Under this legislation, U.S. officials can turn away any vessel that has not met the security standards set forth in the code, or has visited any port within its last 10 stops that has not met the requirements. Most analysts believe the majority of the world''s ports, and many U.S. ports, will not be in compliance by the July 1 deadline.

    This could effectively bar trade with entire nations and all ships that pass through their ports, economically ruining many countries. While the shear volume of trade that could be affected almost guarantees the treaty will not be fully enforced, how the U.S. chooses to apply it could still have serious consequences on U.S. import-dependent businesses and overall U.S. relations with the world.

    By Agostino von Hassell and Mark Bella, of the Repton Group (New York, NY). Contact von Hassell at [email protected].

    Riding the learning curve

    The last few years have taught all of us the importance of a manufacturing economy—but real growth and innovation is fed by the creativity unleashed in R&D and the college lab. If the next growth cycle is to be fueled by new technology and innovation, then education is more important than ever.

    That famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) scene in the movie "The Graduate" (the one where Dustin Hoffmann is urged to go into plastics, in case you''ve forgotten) often makes me wonder just how many of us who make a living off of the plastics industry got here intentionally.

    I certainly didn''t graduate from journalism school with my mind set on being the editor of a plastics trade magazine. And it''s relatively rare that I meet someone who can tell me that they went to college to train for a career in the plastics industry. There are, of course, such alumni among us, but the plastics industry was founded in the garages and backyard shops of entrepreneurs and tinkerers who stumbled into and ultimately built the plastics industry that we know today—one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the world.

    While the sons and daughters of those founders are still running some of the original businesses, it''s fair to say that the plastics industry has evolved well beyond the embryonic entrepreneurial stage. The creativity and enthusiasm that fueled the birth of plastics in the ''40s, ''50s, and ''60s is behind us. What''s to replace it?

    While creativity still abounds in plastics processing facilities around the world, we''re emerging (it appears) from a recession that has exposed a paradigm shift in the plastics community. Developing countries are realizing and enjoying new and unprecedented manufacturing growth (see China, India, and The Czech Republic). Developed countries, watching their manufacturing base erode (see America, England, Western Europe), are struggling to find the new technology and innovation that can help fuel another expansion.

    In this brave new world, it seems to me that the plastics industry''s relationship with the academic community is more important than ever. To spark that much-needed innovation, we must promote and encourage the industry''s future engineers, designers, moldmakers, and presidents to get involved in plastics through the network of colleges and universities around the world that offer plastics-related education.

    While it''s true that there are, here and there, bridges connecting the commercial world of plastics with its academic counterpart, such relationships are usually fleeting and ad hoc—typically one firm fosters a relationship with one school, perhaps the owner''s alma mater.

    So how do we formalize that business-academic connection? How do you encourage school kids to get involved? In the U.S., the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) and the Society of Plastics Engineers give it a good effort—the SPI will soon open an exhibit at Disney''s Epcot Center to promote the industry to the general public. Some suppliers to the industry are realizing a benefit to being academically involved. We highlight one such company this month: Boy Machines, which has donated injection molding machines to several academic institutions.

    We don''t yet know how best to build that crucial interest in plastics, but we''ll keep following the innovators and see where they lead us.

    Jeff Sloan, Editor-in-Chief [email protected]

    Emerging Markets

    Change is a constant–and so is opportunity. Even as the plastics industry radically transforms itself, new applications and technologies continue to flourish. Modern Plastics reports on four markets that look bullish for processors.

    Flexible electronics

    Conductive and light–emitting polymers will change the face of electronics. Silicon Valley will not become the valley of the dinosaurs, though.

    A combination of major multinationals and small development companies spun off from top–ranking universities is at the vanguard of a movement that will transform the way we view information, especially when we are on the move.

    It will resolve, for example, the paradox of having handheld devices capable of receiving truckloads of text and graphics in the blink of an eye, while only displaying them on a screen the size of a large stamp. Instead, upcoming devices will have flexible displays not much smaller than those of a computer, which roll away when not in use. This movement will also make possible the production of much larger, 3–D high–definition displays for both indoor and outdoor applications.

    Earlier this year, consumer electronics maker Philips said it was capable of producing prototypes of ultra–thin, large–area, rollable displays on a routine basis, "and intends to rapidly move towards an industrially feasible production process."

    Polymer Vision, a "technology incubator" at Philips, has made 5–inch (diagonal) displays with a bending radius of 2 cm. It says displays made with "electronic ink" technology are ideal candidates for reading–intensive applications "because of their excellent, paper–like readability and extremely low power consumption." Polymer Vision currently can make more than 5000 fully functional rollable display samples per year, and is in the process of defining a pilot production line.

    Alongside Philips and other electronics multinationals are startups like Cambridge Display Technologies (CDT) and Plastic Logic in Cambridge, two small R&D companies spun out of the Cavendish Laboratory, part of Cambridge University in England. CDT has developed light–emitting diodes based on solution–processible polymers (CDT calls them PLEDs, which are a sub–group of OLEDs, organic LEDs), that can be printed onto formable and even flexible substrates, typically sheets of plastic such as PET.

    Plastic Logic''s expertise lies in printing similarly exotic polymers (both semiconducting and conducting), as well as metals, to form thin–film transistors (TFTs) that can be used in active matrix back–planes that drive displays (and do many other things besides). Plastic Logic has also made resistors, capacitors, diodes, sensors, and other components and connections.

    Plastic transistors have come a long way in the last few years, but they are still orders of magnitude less powerful than state–of–the–art transistors made from crystalline silicon. But as Plastic Logic marketing executive Cranch Lamble points out, it is not the company''s intention to compete in the same end of the market, but to extend it. The beauty of plastics electronics is that they can be produced—directly from CAD data and at very high speed onto large, flexible surfaces—using ink–jet printing equipment that doesn''t require the complex photolithography and vacuum systems used to make today''s transistors.

    The low temperatures used in the process also mean that the substrates can be made from easily obtainable plastics. All told, once the technology is fully developed, the cost of producing finished parts should be highly affordable.

    Outside displays, Plastic Logic is looking at a whole raft of applications that include smart labels, smart packaging, and radio frequency identification (RFID) devices.

    Several different types of polymers, conductive and semi–conductive, are used to make plastic electronics. Plastic Logic is sourcing from a number of suppliers, primarily Dow Chemical (Midland, MI), which produces polyethylenedioxy–thiophene/polystyrene sulfonic acid (PDOT/PSS), and polydioctylfluorine–cobithiophene (F8T2).

    Plastic Logic is one of the very few independent companies in the world developing polymeric back–plane technology. Lamble notes, however, that work is also going on in the R&D labs of major end–users.

    Plastic Logic itself has a cross–licensing agreement with Epson, and Lamble also cites the joint venture between Siemens and printing specialist Kurz. Several major chemical companies are also heavily involved.

    Some examples

    – Covion Organic Semiconductors in Frankfurt, which calls itself ''the first company to offer both high–performance small molecule and conjugated polymer OLED materials at commercial scale,'' and whose prime focus is as a manufacturing partner to industry innovators like CDT (with whom it has an agreement covering technology licensing as well as R&D of new polymers for LEP applications), is owned by specialty chemicals company Avecia, which has its roots in ICI;

    – Bayer subsidiary HC Starck in Leverkusen, Germany makes PDOT/PSS under the Baytron P banner. It is concentrating on applications in ''hole injection'' interlayers in displays. Baytron P features in a ''magic mirror'' display on a new clamshell–type mobile phone from Philips. The display can be used as a mirror until a message comes in, at which point it lights up;

    – DuPont has a business unit called Olight working intensively in the area

    – BASF is developing OLEDs based on special dyes rather than polymers

    – In February, Dow signed a commercial supply agreement with Osram Opto Semiconductors Inc. for the use of Lumation light–emitting polymers developed by Dow''s Advanced Electronic Materials in Osram''s Pictiva PLED display modules

    – Also in February, CDT signed a joint development agreement with Sumitomo Chemical (Tokyo) covering the development and scale–up of PLED materials.

    Sumitomo is already a shareholder and materials licensee of CDT. CDT says the companies "will focus on the development of new solution–processible, phosphorescent materials, such as dendrimers, which exhibit very high efficiencies and good stability." Dendrimers are polymers that have a starlike, rather than linear, structure. The company says that in addition to displays for portable devices, the materials may also find use for lighting devices.

    In the U.S., companies operating in the same field as CDT—the front–planes, or the actual media of displays—include Gyricon, a spin–off of Xerox, and E–Ink. They differ from CDT displays in that they use reflection rather than transmission, and they are currently easier to apply onto flexible substrates.

    Displays involve two films sandwiching a layer of microscopic spheres that contain black and white particles with negative and positive charges respectively. Depending on the charge put across the films the spheres look black or white, so it is possible to make a monochrome image. Color images can also be produced in a similar way, as E–Ink has already demonstrated.

    Applications targeted by the companies vary. Gyricon, for example, is after remotely updatable signage, while E–Ink is concentrating on portable e–readers. E–Ink technology is used in the Philips display for Sony''s just–launched Librie e–book reader. CDT for the moment is mainly concerned with displays in more conventional equipment like laptops and phones, where its displays would replace traditional liquid crystal types. It recently partnered with Philips to produce an all–polymer display for a Philips dry shaver. PM

    Plastics feedstock by the ear

    Already gaining acceptance in fiber, thermoformed, and film applications, corn–derived polylactides are making inroads in injection molding products.

    The clearest indicator of when a new technology has bridged the gap from intriguing to emerging is when capital is bet on it. The biggest wager thus far on polylactides (PLA), plastics made from a bio–based monomer created by fermenting corn, has been placed by Cargill Dow LLC (Minnetonka, MN), a joint venture between Cargill Inc. (Minneapolis, MN) and Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI). The companies invested $750 million and 10 years of research and development on their NatureWorks PLA plant in Blair, NE, which opened in 2002.

    For now, the vast majority of that facility''s 140,000–metric–ton capacity is used for thermoformed packaging, extruded films, and fibers. But a new group of investors is putting money behind injection molding grades, looking to capitalize on the marketing benefits of a biodegradable plastic that isn''t petroleum based, as well as recent advances with compounded blends that use additives to create a more processible resin.

    Mike O''Brien, a spokesman for Cargill Dow, admits that most of the company''s efforts are going towards "the low–hanging fruit in thermoforming," but he says, "injection molding is coming down the road at some point." Several companies are on that road now.

    From the lab to the marketplace

    Using funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Dept. of Energy, John Dorgan, a chemical engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM; Golden, CO) collaborated with several other universities as part of a project called Technology for a Sustainable Environment, which investigated PLAs and their behavior.

    Dorgan presented his findings, which included software that predicts the melt rheological properties of the material and a PLA blend with the flow and mechanical properties needed for injection molding, at the Society of Plastics Engineers'' recent Global Plastics Environmental Conference.

    Working in a university lab replete with an extruder, Dorgan and his associates created a blend composed of 88% to 90% NatureWorks and 10% to 12% Biostar, a biodegradable petroleum–based polyester from Eastman Chemical. A small amount of flow–modifier additive was also used to enhance processing. Normal PLAs behave much like a polystyrene, exhibiting brittleness and a small elongation to break, but the blends from CSM had improved ductility, with higher flexural modulus and impact strength.

    These blends are by no means engineering thermoplastics, but Dorgan feels confident enough about their viability to have invested in an ownership stake in a new company called PolyNew, where he serves as chief technology officer, helping create blends and composites of PLAs and other biopolymers on a 50–mm twin–screw extruder.

    When asked about the company''s marketing strategy for the new resins, Dorgan offered up a jokingly incredulous response.

    "Strategy? I''m a college professor. You got one for me?" All kidding aside, Dorgan said PolyNew is trying to find a partner with marketing expertise to get the blends into the marketplace.

    Making the cut

    Frederic Scheer of Bio Corp. North America (Los Angeles, CA) has worked with biodegradable resins for 10 years, but it has been the chemical advances of recent years and the reduced prices generated from Cargill Dow''s world–scale plant that have allowed his company to push forward with injection molded cutlery, which it introduced in Q4 2003.

    With four more tools on the way, Bio Corp.''s existing four molds can crank out 400 million parts/yr, which is largely directed to college and university food–service companies. Scheer says NatureWork''s new pricing and his own company''s advances have closed the piece–part pricing gap between his cutlery and polyolefin–derived offerings from a two– to three–fold difference to just a few percentage points. But even that premium is palatable given the product''s make–up. "People will agree to pay a little bit more for an environmentally sustainable product," Scheer says, "as long as the differential price isn''t too high, and I believe we''re right there."

    Heat resistance remains a problem, and Scheer says the company is getting closer to the 165F (74C) needed, creating parts that sustain from 142F (61C) to 160F (71C) right now, depending on process parameters.

    Tapping consumer electronics

    Those sorts of physical limitations still hinder the material''s injection molding aspirations, but, according to Eldib Engineering and Research Inc. (Berkley Heights, NJ), an estimated 227,000 tons of plastics could be replaced by PLAs and other biodegradable polymers every year. And with corn prices more stable than those of oil, the long–term sustainability of petroleum in question, and carbon dioxide levels purportedly altering the atmosphere, there are plenty of incentives to find solutions for PLAs'' deficiencies.

    Dorgan thinks the next market breakthrough may come in consumer electronic goods like mobile phones, which enjoy an ever–shorter product life, and it will likely come from Europe or Japan, whose limited landfill space leaves few options outside biodegradables (for an initial report on advances in PLAs in Japan, see April MP/MPI First Look).

    "I think the window is probably the next two to five years," Dorgan predicts for PLAs. "You''ll see a significant renewable content in consumer electronics, where obsolescence takes place quickly, and the cell phone is probably the best example. If you have something that''s turned over every year, why not use renewable PLA?" TD

    Blown film boom for stretch hoods

    Business is booming in blown film for stretch–hood applications. Analysts at Applied Market Information (AMI; Bristol, England) say that in Europe alone the stretch–hood web market will increase by more than 22%/yr through 2007, compared to 5.5%/yr growth for stretch film.

    Stretch hoods are elastic film tubes used to wrap a stacked pallet. Stretch film (mono– or multilayer film with elastic stretch for circular wrapping), however, dominates the pallet wrap market with 67% of the overall market. Another competitor, shrink–hood film (film tubes shrunk around a stacked pallet by applying heat), is expected to decline by 2.3%/yr through 2007, says John Campin at AMI. The total European market for pallet wrap is 1.5 million tonnes/yr.

    That shouldn''t be read as an invitation to all film blowers to jump into the market, however. "Although the [pallet wrapping] films market will advance significantly in volume terms, capacity utilization in the stretch–film sector is forecast to remain below 80%, based on announced capacity increases," Campin says. "As a result, margins will be increasingly under pressure for all players and it is clear that the supply structure will undergo considerable restructuring,"

    It is likely that a number of [shrink–hood film and stretch film] players will exit the business, by divestment, financial failure, or withdrawal to focus on alternatives," he says.

    According to AMI, stretch hoods will encroach first on the shrink–hood market, and then ultimately take a part of the pallet stretch–wrap territory as film technology improves and wrap weight is reduced. European packaging waste legislation is putting pressure on end–users to minimize secondary packaging weight, thereby favoring stretch hoods and stretch wrap rather than thicker shrink hoods.

    Stretch–hood pros

    Stretch–hood equipment encases palletized goods in a tube from a blown film roll by first stretching the film with four grippers to fit over the stack. The tube is pulled over the stack and around the pallet. Horizontal and vertical tension produce the necessary holding force.

    Stretch–hood film has a lot going for it, says Robert Stoppel, area sales manager at pallet handling and storage equipment producer Beumer Maschinenfabrik (Beckum, Germany). "Compared to conventional stretch wrappers and shrink–hood machines, the stretch–hood machines have a significantly higher throughput," Stoppel says.

    Per Lachenmeier, president of wrapping machinery competitor Lachenmeir (Sønderborg, Denmark) says that by using stretch hoods, a packager can eliminate up to e.04/unit for gas burners needed to heat shrink wrap. And traditional stretch wrap won''t provide a balanced holding force the way a stretch hood does. Also, a single stretch–hood skin allows good barcode readability and also preserves the brand identity of packaged goods.

    Brewery group Interbrew recently selected stretch hoods over shrink hoods or stretch wrap for packaging pallets of beer and cans at its Leuven, Belgium facility. Nico Van Tilt, in Interbrew''s corporate engineering department, says the company wanted to change because the existing system (shrink hoods) caused too many instances of unwrapped, loose film ends catching on their warehouse shelving system. Since the shrink hoods are fixed underneath the pallet, the film needs to be perforated by a forklift truck to remove the pallets from the packaging line. This eliminated shrink wrap from consideration because stability would be lost.

    "Our customers pay for quality packs with a relatively high value, which makes a good presentation essential," Van Tilt says. Good weatherproofing was also a consideration. Film thickness is 40 µm, comparable to stretch wrap. But the stretch hood has a fixed wrapping cost per pallet. When using stretch wrap at other facilities, a packaging operator often applied extra film layers "just to be on the safe side," thereby increasing costs per pallet, he says.

    Global interest

    Although stretch hoods'' popularity is most pronounced in Europe and somewhat less in Asia, Lachenmeier says his company is seeing growing interest coming from North America. Appliance manufacturers there want to switch from cardboard packaging to stretch hoods, which he says could provide up to $5/unit savings and cut as much as 50% of packaging costs.

    "An important factor in the transport chain of appliances is to see where scratches occur and sort these out before they get to the customer," he says.

    "With cardboard you wait until the customer complains. This requires service personnel and having to take back and replace the damaged goods. Stretch–hood film can eliminate this cost factor because any damage is seen before it reaches the retailer." Other North American markets showing interest in stretch–hood film are chemicals and the cement industry. Stretch hoods cope with elevated temperatures of hot–fill cement in paper sacks.

    Polymer producer ExxonMobil (Houston, TX) has recently targeted the stretch–hood market by offering processors a coextruded film recipe package to improve film performance. Introduced last December, Nexxstar, the first of a family of resin formulations, claims to offer cost benefits, toughness, and improved optical properties for use on present packaging equipment.

    The 3–layer blown film structure consists of a core of Escorene Ultra FL00111 high–content (7.5% VA) ethylene–vinyl acetate copolymer (EVA) sandwiched between layers of Exceed 1018CA metallocene linear low–density polyethylene (mLLDPE). Structure ratios are 1:3:1 and thickness depends on load height and pallet size.

    Jan Donck, LDPE market planner at ExxonMobil, says the EVA provides the elasticity and holding force while the mLLDPE gives tear and puncture resistance as well as high clarity. RC

    Pellets into pallets proves a winner

    Stricter hygiene standards, concerns about pests, and greater design features–these are the sorts of reasons the plastic pallet industry has rapidly evolved from the embryonic stage to sustained growth.

    Pallets may not be the application that springs to mind when one thinks of an emerging market (after all, there have been plastic pallets for many years now —July 1998 MP/MPI), but global demand is still growing at better than 10%/yr. One sign the pallet market has not yet reached its apex is that no single production process is yet predominant in their manufacture. In most applications one process will dominate, or two will compete to some degree.

    But for pallet processing, at least four plastics processes see extensive use: injection molding, rotational molding, single– or twin–sheet thermoforming, and structural foam molding.

    Wilhelm Kiendl, owner of Kiga GmbH (Wilnsdorf, Germany), notes the market is served primarily by very large processors, but says there is still demand for smaller firms such as his.

    "We can compete with the big ones on price, but not on output. But our reaction times are much faster," he says. His firm both injection molds and compression molds pallets, and recently also began thermoforming a collapsible version for DaimlerChrysler. Collapsible versions require less storage space after they have been emptied, an important point for many automotive OEMs and other manufacturers.

    Many other processors process collapsible versions including Schoeller Wavin Systems (Pullach, the Netherlands), which won Germany''s 2003 Industrial Packaging design prize for its GLT–Plus collapsible pallet.

    Thermoforming vs. injection molds

    Thermoforming allows the use of much less expensive tooling—in the range of e10,000 vs. e250,000 and up for injection molds, Kiendl says—and tooling can be made in three to four weeks. But injection molded pallets can be more precisely manufactured, and this is proving an important contrast to wooden pallets, which may have knot holes and eventually sag, warp, or bend.

    Injection molded units show little change over time, and this is critical in the many firms where increasingly it is robots, and not human employees, that are unloading pallets. For this to happen effectively, the pallets must conform to a single, precise size, so that goods packed on them are in the exact same position every time.

    A safety issue

    Strict hygiene standards are a big driver of plastic pallet demand in industries such as pharmaceuticals and foods processing, which cannot hazard the chance of a wood splinter contaminating their products. Siobhan Walsch, food–supply–chain specialist with supply–chain consultancy Team BDS (Claregalway, Ireland), says the retail market has been especially aggressive in pushing its suppliers, including processors of plastics food packaging, to meet the standards imposed on it by government food–safety watchdog organizations. Limiting the use of wooden pallets around foodstuffs is one part of that.

    "Food safety and consumer protection have become a huge concern for retailers," she explains. Paul Markey, manufacturing manager at Rye Valley Foods (Carrickmacross, Ireland), a maker of ready–to–eat meals, agrees, and notes that his firm no longer allows its suppliers to ship it any goods on wooden pallets. Kiendl notes that, beyond these industries, many others including automotive are moving more assembly into cleanroom environments, within which no wood or paperboard is allowed—another long–term impetus for plastic pallet demand.

    Plastic pallets stack up

    Plastic pallets typically cost three to four times as much as wooden ones. As a result of these high costs, some firms use the plastic versions in–house and then transfer product to wooden pallets for shipping, since the expense of collecting pallets for return is often too high. Markey says his firm does just that—once meals are prepared, packed packs are shrink–wrapped, and are then palletized on wooden pallets for shipping.

    Kiga and others have developed light–weight pallets, generally of recycled PE or PP, that are cost–competitive with untreated wooden pallets. This type sees frequent use in shipping products to the European Union, China, Australia, Japan, and other countries that do not allow the entry of untreated wooden pallets for fear of insects that are often harbored in the wood.

    One–way plastic pallets typically cost from e5 to e6, says Kiendl. Pallets using virgin material designed to meet extreme hygienic standards and high strength requirements can cost as much as e50, he says, though these only see use in industries with extreme hygiene requirements, such as baby foods processing or meat packing.

    In plastics'' favor for multi–trip pallets is their durability compared to wooden pallets. Plastic pallets'' strength and durability can be improved to the degree that they often can survive 100 trips, as compared with an average of 10 trips for wood. For instance, Kiga inserts iron bars into some pallets to improve load strength, and uses recycled PET in others, as it is stronger than PE or PP.

    Flame–retardant pallet development hit the fast track in the U.S. after fire insurance laws there forced firms that were using plastic pallets to either upgrade their sprinkler and fire prevention systems to NFPA13 standards, a costly move, or not comply with efficient handling and storage practices.

    Plastic pallets initially were vulnerable, as the versions available burned longer than wood. But many processors subsequently enhanced their compounds with flame retardants to improve plastics'' performance. The result is that many plastic pallets now pass the requirements for Underwriters Laboratories'' UL2335 flame resistance listings. MD

    At Medtec, high-tech molders seek the medical applications cure

    The market demands the skills built up in other markets such as telecom, but is perceived as more immune to low-cost competition.

    It is by no means the easiest market to enter, and processors averse to arguments over product liability should steer well clear. But for those with the technical capability, the medical device sector is rather more stable, and probably more profitable in the long term, than other technical markets like automotive and telecom. (March 2003 MP/MPI).

    At the Stuttgart Medtec 2004 show in March for the medical device manufacturing industry, companies like Balda and Perlos, well known in the mobile phone and medical sectors but increasingly active in the latter, were prominent. Smaller processors were making first-time bids, while those well-established were looking to strengthen their holds.

    Seppo Arento, Vantaa, Finland-based sales and marketing VP for pharma products at Perlos, says production of medical components is not so easy to transfer from the West to Asia. "The two sectors have different logistical systems," he says. "Filling of medical (containers) is still largely done in the West, for example." Producing medical packaging in one place and filling in another negates much of the potential cost advantage.

    (Perlos converted a U.K. facility from telecom to medical two years ago, and last year doubled the size of its cleanroom facility there. Arento refers to the U.K. as medical''s Silicon Valley, because of the concentration of design companies there working in the field.)

    Dutch processor Rompa, which specializes in inmold decoration for (mostly) consumer electronics using high-end films from Japanese firm Nissha (Kyoto), and is looking to expand its medical activities, was a first-time exhibitor, as was Telegartner Kunststofftechnik (Steinbronn, Germany).

    Telegartner, which is carving out a niche in high added-value multicomponent parts, has a relatively long history in medical. It targets small assemblies that are generally produced in several stages, often with substantial manual input, and devises ways to produce them in a single, if highly elaborate, molding process. By so doing, Managing Director Frank Heinzelmann says it can slash up to 60% of total cost.

    Nypro''s bold growth bid

    Nypro has already made a name for itself in medical component supply, but it has recently decided to re-emphasize its presence. Currently, 49% of the company''s turnover derives from electronics and telecom business. But Thomas Taylor, VP for business development at the company''s new Medical Products Group, says that figure is likely to decrease.

    "Medical has been a very stable business for many years, with steady growth and healthy margins," he says. "Especially when we went through the last downturn in the economy, everybody started to remember the value of the medical business, so for 2004, upper management decided a key goal is to grow business in the medical market."

    The Medical Products Group is headed by Randall Barko, chairman of Nypro company NP Medical, which forms the platform of the new business, and makes proprietary IV flow control and needleless access devices.

    Nypro''s short-term goal is to grow the medical business from a budgeted $26 million for 2004 to $50 million—and on to $200 million inside five years.

    "With the existing product line it is going to be impossible to reach that short-term goal, so we are going to bring in some other products to increase the portfolio," Taylor says. "I will be doing a lot of buying, and it has to be very synergistic stuff."

    He is currently looking at increasing Nypro''s capability in technologies such as micromolding and liquid silicone rubber molding. Taylor notes that Nypro "does no LSR molding right now, but we buy a lot of LSR components."

    "If successful, we would have 100% proprietary products operations like NP Medical, proprietary products JVs, proprietary process JVs and, in the long term, proprietary assembly and product development JVs, with companies that would do the engineering of a part."

    Peter Mapleston [email protected]

    Contact information

    Nypro   www.nypro.com
    Perlos   www.perlos.com
    Rompa   www.rompa-plastics.com
    Telegartner   www.tg-kunststofftechnik.com