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TPE resin pricing, May 21-25: PE eases; PP falls $0.01/lb; PE exports at lowest level in four years, PP shipments at a more than six-year low

Processors sought sharper decreases than the $0.04/lb most recently offered for May polyethylene (PE) contracts, and although one producer dropped May PE contracts by $0.07/lb, this has yet to be seen industry-wide. Polypropylene (PP) contracts settled down $0.10/lb earlier in the month, according to spot trading platform, The Plastics Exchange (TPE), while spot markets for both materials have since traded well below these levels. Spot plastics trading activity was average last week, as volumes were softer and most commodity grade resins were priced marginally lower. TPE CEO Michael Greenberg noted that thoughts of still falling prices have left processors thinking in terms of de-stocking and minimizing purchases, which is contributing to growing upstream inventories.TPE resin prices, May 25, 2012

Energy markets moved lower last week, as July crude oil futures fell for the fourth week in a row shedding $0.94/bbl to settle at $90.86/bbl on Friday, the lowest level in more than 6 months. July natural gas gave back much of the previous week's gains, sliding $0.233/mmBtu to end at $2.672/mmBtu. The crude oil : natural gas price ratio expanded to 34.5:1, although the spread has come in from its April record of 52:1. In spite of that, it is currently nearly six times the 6:1 ratio considered parity.

Ethylene's spot market stabilized and prices rebounded slightly when overall supplies improved as cracker maintenance wound down. May Ethylene traded at $0.53/lb, up more than a penny. It was then bid to nearly $0.54/lb by week's end, and June ethylene last changed hands at $0.525/lb. Although ethylene prices have dropped dramatically from the season high of $0.75/lb, ethane prices have also fallen, last finishing around $0.39/lb ($0.165/lb), so that ethylene margins remain excellent.

Polyethylene (PE) spot prices were about a half-cent lower on average, with some movement between grades. May contracts are widely offered $0.04/lb lower, with one producer matching a major index's suggestion of a $0.07/lb decrease. Resellers are generally looking to sell uncommitted material outright and are not ready to re-stock, even at relative bargain prices. The export market is very difficult, according to TPE, with April sales coming in at less than 500 million lb, which is their worst performance since November 2008. Greenberg noted that, not only does the arbitrage not work to Asia, but that continent's material is actually being offered into South America, further complicating typical North American export sales.

Propylene's spot market continued to firm, slowly recovering from the steep declines seen earlier in the month, when some crackers increased their use of propane as a feedstock thus producing more propylene. Prices have inched back into the mid $0.50s/lb, with the most recent spot transaction seen at $0.555/lb, which is a far cry from the $0.675/lb for May polymer grade propylene (PGP) contracts. June PGP has been initially nominated to decrease $0.08/lb, which would equate to $0.595/lb, a more modest of a decline than some had anticipated. Refinery grade propylene (RGP) is priced in the mid $0.40s/lb, providing strong splitter margins.

Polypropylene (PP) prices were pressured down another penny as market participants look ahead to June and imminently lower contracts. Domestic purchasing continues to be sluggish while processors wind down inventories built earlier this year. Many processors also ran their contract orders at a minimum during May, opting to buy lower priced material that has been available in the spot market. PGP and resin contracts have been nominated to ease another $0.08/lb in June, but TPE speculated that perhaps the decrease would ultimately be a bit larger. "When this occurs, and the better part of $0.20/lb has been relieved from the market, we expect to see an up-tick in demand as processors will also need to re-stock," Greenberg said. At present, supplies are more than ample, upstream inventories are the highest since last October, and export sales are the lowest in more than 6 years, according to TPE. ,

Final thought from Michael Greenberg

Commodity resin prices are grinding lower as the month draws towards a close. May PE contracts are not fully settled, but decreases of $0.04/lb or $0.07/lb have been offered depending on producer, further declines are anticipated for June. May PP contracts were marked down $0.10/lb, and a similar break is expected for next month. This next round of relief should rejuvenate domestic demand, as downstream inventories are getting fairly thin. Exports are a different story, negative sentiment and competitive offers from the Middle East and other Asian traders have shut down the high volume trade, which does not appear ready to resurface. This will make it challenging to clear the surplus resin hanging over the market. One can easily argue the sense to cut resin reactor rates; however, cracker margins are so profitable and all that monomer still needs to go somewhere.

Low-cost carbon fiber composites target mega-market by 2030

In a collaboration with a group of leading Japanese corporations, Tokyo University has developed two types of low-cost, high-performance CFRTP (carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastics) prepregs for the mass production of ultra-lightweight cars which can be manufactured in fast molding cycles and are recyclable to boot.


Specially-treated carbon fiber and modified resins are employed in new auto composite


New composite materials boast superior formability.

The first one is a discontinuous CF-reinforced isotropic prepreg and the second one a continuous CF-reinforced prepreg. The matrix resin is primarily PP (polypropylene), but PA (polyamide) can also be employed. The specially surface-treated CF and modified resins developed for these prepregs provide high strength, energy absorption, formability and recyclability. A full impregnation method was developed to shorten the molding cycle to a minute. Joining, repair and recycling technologies utilizing the thermoplastic nature of the matrix materials were also developed.

These CFRTP prepregs will reportedly enable weight reduction in automotive bodies of 40-70%. The discontinuous CF-reinforced isotropic prepreg is suitable for complex parts and the continuous CF-reinforced prepreg for primary structure parts such as frames. Their most notable feature is their ductile fracture behavior without significant delamination. Their tough nature not only brings a high energy absorption capacity but also provides more flexible manufacturing methods for composite structures.

The material development phase has been completed and the project has proceeded to the application phase. The team is sharing material data and samples with major Japanese automobile manufacturers. Prototype design and trial manufacture are in progress.

With these innovative technologies, it is estimated that 100 kg of CFRTP parts will equip 10 million passenger cars annually by 2030. Hence, the potential market demand for CF is estimated at one million tonnes by 2030.

Corporate partners in the project are carbon fiber suppliers Toray Industries, Mitsubishi Rayon, and Toyobo, together with molder Takagi Seiko. The team won a JEC Innovation Award in the Automotive Category that will be presented at the upcoming JEC Asia show in Singapore to be held June 26-28, 2012.-[email protected]

Cintas eco-apparel uses 15 million plastic bottles

Cintas Corp., the nation's largest uniform supplier, stated it has helped eliminate more than 15 million plastic bottles from the waste stream by repurposing plastic waste in its eco-apparel product line.

The company, which manufactures corporate uniforms and provides entrance mats, restroom supplies, promotional products, and more, said it has also reduced water use, packaging, and chemical waste, which is all part of the company's green initiatives.

A Cintas company spokesperson told PlasticsToday the eco-apparel line stemmed from a focus to improve the company's processes and provide environmentally responsible products.

"In addition, many of our hospitality partners were looking for ways to improve the sustainability of their operations, so we wanted to be able to provide them with a suiting option that would not only improve their environmental commitment, but also made their employees look and feel good," the spokesperson said.

In 2011, the company's eco-apparel, made from recycled polyester fiber, repurposed 16.9-oz plastic bottles into sustainable tops, bottoms, scrubs, and washable tuxedos. For example, the regeneration suiting collection from Cintas diverts approximately 25 plastic bottles from the waste stream with the construction of each suit.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manufacturing products made from recycled plastic require 66% less energy, and reduces water use by 90%.

"Plastic waste can be recycled into polyester, which is a staple in the uniform industry due to its durability," the spokesperson said.  "Extending our sustainability practices throughout all divisions has been a key initiative and something we wanted to offer our customers."

The spokesperson said there isn't a noticeable difference to the average person when comparing recycled versus virgin polyester.

"Customers love the eco-apparel line; it's a way for them to contribute and make a difference by wearing a product that contributes to waste reduction and increases recycling of plastic material," the spokesperson said. "The material is comfortable and the eco-apparel is machine washable, which is an added environmental benefit of this product. "

Green Matter: Phthalate-free newest buzz in PVC

It went on: “The Segetis bio-based plasticizers are built on a platform of cellulosic-based levulinic ketals, which Segetis has branded as Javelin technology. These plasticizers are compatible across a wide loading range, are highly efficient with excellent permanence and bring faster processing speeds and elevated temperature performance.

“The bio-based compounds with the Segetis plasticizers are suitable for a variety of consumer and industrial end products that would benefit from a non-phthalate solution, but won’t compromise on their ability to deliver specific properties,” said William H. Doherty, VP–vinyl compounds at Georgia Gulf.

Reading this news, it struck me that over the past year, news about bio-plasticizers and phthalate-free plasticizers for PVC had been coming in on what almost amounts to a regular basis. It would appear that bio-plasticisers are rapidly becoming a class of additives whose time has come. Bio-plasticizers are hot.

After all, for Georgia Gulf, it was the second announcement of this kind in two months. At the end of March, Georgia Gulf Corporation announced it was collaborating with Galata Chemicals to develop a line of flexible bio- based PVC compounds containing Drapex Alpha, a primary plasticizer produced from renewable feedstocks—epoxidized soybean oil—by Galata Chemicals.

And over the past, say, six months alone, Teknor Apex and Dow have announced a collaboration to market flexible vinyl compounds containing Dow Ecolibrium bio-based plasticizers in certain applications (consumer and industrial products, certain medical devices, automotive components, and select wire and cable products). PolyOne introduced its reflex 100 bio-plasticizer, which was granted a 94% biobased label by the USDA BioPreferred Program. BioAmber and Lanxess are jointly working to develop biosuccinic-based plasticizers. Oxea introduced Oxsoft GPO as a phthalate-free replacement for DOP and DINP. BASF announced that it will double production of its phthalate-free plasticizer Hexamoll DINCH from 100,000 metric tons to 200,000 metric tons per year at the Ludwigshafen site by 2013 in response to increased demand. At the end of April, Eastman Chemical Company announced it had completed the retrofit and startup of its non-phthalate plasticizer manufacturing facility in Texas, increasing the overall production capacity by 60%. And the list continues: Roquette, Danisco, and so on, and so on.

It’s a welcome trend, as the evidence continues to mount that phthalates are bad news.

Phthalate-esters are not chemically bound to the PVC polymer, which means they migrate out of products or dissolve, when in contact with liquids. They enter the environment during production, processing, and at the end of life, posing risks to aquatic ecosystems and to birds and the mammalian food chain. Human exposure to phthalates has widespread health effects—on reproductivity, breast cancer, the prevalence of diabetes in the elderly, and even on obesity: In January of this year, for example, researchers from the Children's Environmental Health Center at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York found an association between exposure to phthalates and obesity in young children.

For this reason, legislation banning or regulating the use of phthalates has been enacted in the countries of Europe, North America, Japan and lately, Latin America.

That leaves just one worry. Bio-plasticizers for the most part, are also not chemically bound to the polymer they are used with. This means that they come with the same leaching problems phthalates have. According to a technical briefing published by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts in January, 2011 most of these alternative plasticizers are “not well studied with regard to their potential effects on human health and the environment. Although many of these alternatives show promising application potential, significant exposure may lead to adverse health effects.”

Let’s hope it’s not a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Foster hikes capacity; Foster, Putnam split

"As a leader in polymer compounding for minimally invasive devices and catheters, Foster has developed an expertise in the dispersion of additives in polymers for thin wall parts," said Christine Howe, director of manufacturing for Foster. "We have designed this new larger line to provide the same quality and consistency for Class I devices with demanding color requirements. These applications generally consume higher volumes and are under increased pressure to reduce costs."

The output of Foster's new line is in excess of 1000 lb/hr (454 kg/hr). It is complemented with traditional strand cutting and underwater pelletizing, which will be used for low-durometer materials such as urethanes and thermoplastic elastomers (TPE). The equipment was designed to serve high-volume medical applications where color is critical and cost is important, such as custom-colored polymers for bandage or packaging film.

Traditional methods of coloring polymers for high-volume applications include blending masterbatch concentrates with natural polymers prior to manufacturing, or pre-coloring polymers using high-throughput, single-screw extrusion equipment. While they are economical, pigment dispersion can be challenging in some Class I devices. These include polymers with high pigment loadings, films, or components with thin walls, and components manufactured using small molding or extrusion equipment with inherently limited dispersion capabilities.

Foster has 80 employees at plants in Putnam, CT and Las Vegas, NV. Divided between the two facilities are nine production units and three developmental units. Sizes range from 16 mm to 53 mm.

"More capacity is planned," Foster CEO Larry Acquarulo told PlasticsToday in an interview. The next line may be added in Las Vegas.

Foster operates under the umbrella of a company called Polymedex Discovery Group, which was formed approximately three years ago by the owners of Foster and Putnam Plastics, a custom medical extruder based in Dayville, CT. The owners decided recently to refocus on the Foster and Putnam brands separately. The groups will operate totally independently again by year's end.

Burmese auto industry may get a boost

That hasn't fazed Japanese Tier I auto parts maker Toyota Boshoku (Kariya), whose president Shuhei Toyoda was reported in the reputable Nikkei publication of Japan to be considering investing there. The Toyota Motor-affiliated company is a major supplier of interior trim, seats and instrument panels.

For the record, Myanmar's population is closing in on 55 million and per capita GDP was estimated at $1300 in 2011, ranking it just 206th out of the 226 nations listed by the CIA. This places the country alongside the likes of Nepal, Rwanda and Mali, and just ahead of Haiti, which is perhaps more an indication of Myanmar's future potential after decades of military rule than anything else.

Turning to the plastics processing sector in Myanmar, hard data is scant but consultant Townsend Solutions (Houston, TX) estimates polyethylene consumption in 2011 at around 70,000 tonnes in total, while polypropylene demand is pegged at around 80,000 tonnes, mainly being used in raffia bags. A per capita polyolefin consumption of just 2.7 kg is another barometer of the growth potential for Myanmar's plastics sector as the country opens up to investment.

Myanmar is also known to manufacture wood plastic composites, while in 2011, the government introduced a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags in the main commercial center of Yangon, although enforcement appears to be lax.-[email protected]

Composite bogie down on weight

A composite bogie frame made of woven glass fabric and epoxy promises to bring about a 30% weight saving compared with conventional steel frames, corresponding to a 635 kg weight reduction per carriage. The bogie frame was developed by Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI; Gyeonggi-do, Korea), and manufactured by KM Co. (Gunsan, Korea).


Epoxy/glass-fabric composite lightens the load for rolling stock.

The bogie frame in railway rolling stock is intended to support heavy static and dynamic loads, such as the vertical load exerted by the body of the vehicle, braking and accelerating loads, twisting loads induced by track twisting and traction loads. It accounts for approximately 20% of the overall bogie weight.

The lightweight bogie system reduces wear on the rails and wheels, which consequently require less maintenance. Reducing the axle load is also a key factor for a railway industry that aspires to develop high-speed and high-capacity trains.

Several prototype bogie frames have been manufactured and tested. In 2011, the GFRP bogie frame passed a tight fatigue test under a repeated loading of 107 cycles. A full-scale running performance test using a roller rig testing system will be conducted in October this year. Subsequently, the main line test is scheduled for the next two years.

In Korea, approximately 6000 subway trains, typically with 10 carriages each, could be equipped with the GFRP bogie frame according to KRRI. The technology is also applicable to other types of railway rolling stock. For its work, KRRI won a JEC Innovation Award in the Railway "exaequo" Category that will be presented at the upcoming JEC Asia show in Singapore to be held June 26-28, 2012. —[email protected]

Medical Musings: FCC clears way for remote monitoring

The wires are uncomfortable and provide portals for infection for all patients. In fact, the limitations of these physical cables keep nearly half of all patients from being actively monitored. According to a study by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a monitored hospital patient has a 48% chance of surviving a cardiac arrest-this number plummets as low as 6% without monitoring.  Also, there will no longer be a need to disconnect and reconnect wires prior to transporting a patient.

"MBANs represent the next evolution in monitoring a patient's health status," said Dr. Richard Katz, Director, Division of Cardiology, The George Washington University Hospital (Washington, D.C.). "These wireless innovations can enhance patient safety by giving caregivers the ability to monitor many clinical measurements, wherever the patient is located."

In its First Report and Order, the Commission allocates 40 MHz of spectrum at 2360-2400 MHz for MBAN use on a secondary basis.  By providing access to spectrum that is free of transmissions from WiFi, iPhones, Blackberries and other ubiquitous high-powered consumer devices, the FCC's ruling is seen as a key enabler for use of wearable sensors that transmit data that is aggregated at a nearby device for local processing and forwarded to centralized displays and electronic medical records.

Medical device manufacturers are excited by the development.

GE Healthcare and Royal Philips Electronics issued a press release applauding the FCC for its action.

"With access to special-purpose spectrum, the healthcare industry's research and development efforts can go into overdrive," said Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer, Patient Care and Clinical Informatics, Philips Healthcare. "The expansion of wireless monitoring capabilities will help allow earlier clinical diagnoses, decisions and interventions, supporting the delivery of better patient care at lower costs."

"The FCC's ruling is the culmination of strong collaboration between the medical industry, regulatory officials and aeronautical stakeholders," said Mike Harsh, vice president and Chief Technology Officer at GE Healthcare. "This is an important inflection point, as it enables advances in miniaturized wireless sensors leveraging the latest chip design and clinical measurement technologies. MBANs could significantly enhance quality and access to patient care, while supporting reduced costs."

Editorial: Can the U.S. government do better in additive manufacturing than it did in solar?

A recent headline in Manufacturing & Technology News, caught my eye: "Government Is Pushing Full Speed Ahead On Additive Manufacturing." The editorial by Richard A. McCormack, editor of Manufacturing & Technology News, discussed "the creation of a major new pilot manufacturing center that will focus on the development and implementation of 'additive manufacturing' technologies."Additive manufacturing

According to McCormack's information, the "center is expected to be funded at $45 million with money that has already been appropriated by Congress. Of the total, $30 million will come from the Department of Energy" (well known for making wise decisions when it comes to funding projects, i.e. Solyndra and Solar Trust of America) "and Defense, of which up to $15 million will be used to buy equipment." (I can see EOS, 3D Systems, Stratasys and others drooling over the RFQs already.) "Another $10 million will be provided by the DOD ManTech program. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will contribute $5 million. NASA is also involved."

This news came just before the Rapid 2012 Additive Manufacturing conference held this week in Atlanta. Attendee interest no doubt piqued when they heard that this government AM pilot center "will be a step to get additive manufacturing from a niche to the mainstream," McCormack quoted Phil Spampinato, Director, Government Business Development for ILC Dover, an engineering company that makes space suits for NASA, respirators used by soldiers in Afghanistan, and other equipment. In fact, so far, ILC Dover which has used AM for 20 years, "is the only vendor that has expressed interest in operating the center."

Here's the real kicker. According to Spampinato, "The government has to play a role because industry is not going to invest in the developmental side of it beyond parochial interests." (I'll bet Greg Morris of Morris Technologies in Mason, OH is really happy to hear this!) "The government or some strategic entity has to take it to the next level. If our government doesn't do it, then the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians or others will." (Hm-m-m, how dare those Chinese, Indians, Brazilians or others get ahead of us in AM!!)

Supposedly, the proposed Additive Manufacturing Pilot Institute will develop open architecture processes 'that have flexibility in starting raw materials, insitu metrology and process controls for quality,' says the solicitation announcement. It will work on fabrication of new materials that have properties such as tailored stiffness, electrical conductivity and cooling passages. It will try to improve deposition rates, surface finish, manufacturing throughput, process reliability and lower energy density. It will develop 'additive manufacturing enterprise methodologies for enabling rapid design and functional fabrication of current and future DOD platforms through integration of digital designs with reverse engineering techniques using computational tools.' And it will try to develop methods to 'rapidly and affordably quality additive manufacturing processes.'"

Excuse me? Correct me if I'm wrong - and I certainly want to hear from you if I am mistaken - but aren't AM companies, equipment manufacturers and people like Terry Wohlers already doing most - if not all - of these things? Didn't Wohlers Associates work through the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and the ASTM International to develop the first standard for AM - a universal language for AM? According to an article I wrote back in January 2010, the ASTM formed the Committee F42 on AM with the SME's Rapid Technologies & Additive Manufacturing Community. Obviously the government doesn't know anything about the 20-year history of AM and all that's been accomplished. Does this surprise anyone?

Now for the best part: "The government hopes the institute will become self-sustaining in five years."  Haven't we heard that word "hope" somewhere before? And five years? Wasn't that supposed to be Solyndra's time line?

Before the taxpayers are asked to throw more money at another government boondoggle, we'd better all write our Congress people and let them know that AM is already on the fast track to developing materials, equipment, reverse engineering, design and development of end-use products and much more.

The more big government gets its hands into things of which it knows nothing, the more money we see dropping into the black hole. Let the AM industry - private enterprise where the goal is to be profitable and develop a sustained business model - do its job. We'll be far better off.  Whenever the government pushes "full speed ahead" on anything, the taxpayers are the ones who get pushed over the cliff.

Sumitomo plans TPO, EVA production in Saudi Arabia

The plants that have received the go-ahead should be on-stream beginning the first half of 2016. Sumitomo Chemical (Tokyo) and its local partner The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) are also mulling the production of nylon 6 resin at the site. The partners are investing a total of $7 billion in the new production assets, which also include superabsorbent polymer (SAP) and petrochemicals such as polyols,

The Petro Rabigh joint venture is already a major player in plastics supply in Asia and elsewhere, with polypropylene, linear low-density polyethylene and high-density polyethylene plants operating commercially since September 2009. —[email protected]