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issue: August 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Plastics Technology
Plastic’s New Ideas

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An APPLIANCE Staff Feature

Appliance makers need new ideas to facilitate product differentiation and cost-reduction, and the plastics industry gathered at NPE 2006 to show just how much it has to offer.

Complex robotic manipulation of plastic parts in very tight spaces is enabled by the 7-axis IA20 robot from Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, Ohio, U.S.). The 7-axis, actuator-driven robot has a space-saving design and can even straighten vertically to take up only one square foot of floor space or straighten out horizontally at a height of about two feet above the floor. The minimized footprint and motion flexibility let it be positioned between machines or out of the normal working area. It can be floor-, ceiling, wall-, incline-, or machine-mounted. The robot has a 20 kg (44.1-pound) payload, a 1,140 mm (44.88-inch) reach (from centerline of base rotation to tool mounting surface), and a repeatability of +/-0.1 mm (0.004 inch).

APPLIANCE magazine editors were in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. to attend the National Plastics Exhibition—NPE 2006: The International Plastics Showcase. The triennial materials and equipment show, founded and sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI), was held for the 25th time and filled all halls of McCormick Place, the largest exhibition complex in the U.S. The show attracted 600 companies and visitors from 100 countries.

Just a few days after the NPE show closed its doors in Chicago, Europe’s much-anticipated RoHS restrictions kicked in, banning the use of certain hazardous substances.
The plastics industry has solved most of its RoHS challenges and offers compliant materials for many applications, but that doesn’t mean plastics won’t be feeling more heat from other smoldering environmental issues. WEEE is coming to Europe, sooner or later, and will require widespread return-for-recycling programs for appliances and other consumer goods. Those who pay the recycling costs—the OEMs and consumers who buy their products—may put substantial pressure on plastics suppliers to provide more easily recyclable materials (that do not compromise material integrity). Product design for disassembly will be increasingly factored into the plastics equation as Euro-pean regulations struggle to differentiate and define what are homogenous and what are mechanically separable components, and as OEMs alter their designs to meet the specifications.
Materials suppliers are responding with plastics grades that facilitate recycling. Basell Polyolefins (Elkton, Maryland, U.S.), for example, is supplying BSH Bosch & Siemens Home Appli-ances with a grade of its Hostacom PP (polypropylene) used for a tumble dryer chassis, base, stock shield, and ring insert. Material weight was reduced compared
to the previous metal parts, Basell says, and effective recycling was made possible.
Efforts to create viable plastic materials that are biodegradable are still in their infancy. Firms such as BASF Corporation (Florham Park, New Jersey, U.S.) and Econeer USA (Costa Mesa, California, U.S.) were exhibiting biodegradable plastics at NPE 2006, although at this time the materials are primarily for packaging applications. Bio-Tec Environmental, LLC (Cedar Crest, New Mexico, U.S.) makes additives for plastics to render them biodegradable—the company says the additives can be used in LDPE, PET, HDPE, PP, PS, and other major polymers.
Metabolix Inc. (Cambridge, Mass-achusetts, U.S.) makes a family of plastics that are produced from the fermentation of plant sugars and oils using microbial biofactories. The semicrystalline thermoplastic materials include stiff thermoplastics suitable for molded parts, highly elastic grades and grades suitable for adhesives and coatings. The company’s goal is to make the production of the plant-derived plastics cost-competitive, even compared to general-purpose resins like polyethylene, and to offer biodegradable alternatives to over half of the plastics commonly used now.

The thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) sector is said to be one of the fastest-growing plastic sectors because the materials combine elastic properties similar to conventional rubber with the design freedom, colorability and recyclability of other plastics. Pepper Computer, Inc. (Lexington, Massachusetts, U.S.) exploited the engineering flexibilities of TPEs from GLS Corporation (McHenry, Illinois, U.S.) when designing the Pepper Pad. The device is described as a cross between a PC and a PDA, with a high-resolution display, 20 GB hard disk, built-in speakers, and a thumb keypad. It is designed to provide a versatile platform for online and off-line activities, and the company is now working with electric housewares producer Salton to make a version of the Pepper pad for Salton’s Beyond™ brand of connected home products. The Pepper Pad is produced using TPE materials over-molded onto more rigid substrates around the center bezel, over the end caps and over the scroll work.

Looking Good at Any Age

At this stage, the appliance industry ranks appearance and product design higher on the priority list than ease-of-recycling. The personalized look of appliances is growing in importance. Aesthetics can provide a differentiating quality that makes a product successful. Plastics’ inherent design versatility lends itself to specialized appliance contours and custom colors—but the positive benefits are lost when a pretty appliance fades with age. More plastics materials are being developed for long-term color stability.
Plastics are also being used to protect other appliance components from exposure to the elements and enabling new controls configurations that were once impractical outside. Advanced Polymer Alloys (Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.) recently provided its DuraGrip 6260CL grade melt-processible elastomer (MPE) to Rheem Heating and Air Conditioning for a flexible protective cover for its heat pump and condensing unit controls. The material is designed to bond to a rigid polypropylene substrate, creates a barrier against the elements. The clear elastomeric material is also designed to remain flexible, without becoming brittle or yellowing, and protect the buttons and sensors throughout years of exposure to the elements and temperature extremes.

New Ideas in Materials

The Dow Chemical Company (Midland, Michigan, U.S.) used a proprietary materials development process to create its new family of novel olefin elastomers, which are said to expand the application potential for olefins. InSite™ Technology is Dow’s proprietary approach for synchronizing the science behind catalyst, process and materials in the creation of new plastics. The approach led to a catalyst system that allows for control of the molecular architecture required to produce the olefin-block structure in a continuous process.
Controlling the block structure is the key to delivering the properties of the material family introduced at NPE—InFuse™ Olefin Block Coploymers (OBCs), Dow says, represent a breakthrough in olefin elastomers and enables enhanced performance and processing properties beyond current olefin elastomers. This includes outstanding high-temperature performance, faster set-up in processing for reduced cycle times, improved abrasion resistance, and a high degree of elasticity and compression set properties at both room and elevated temperatures.
“We have achieved a revolutionary breakthrough by being the first to combine the technology of catalytic block copolymers and linear olefin-based thermoplastics in a continuous process,” said Kurt Swogger, global vice president of R&D, Performance Plastics and Chemicals, during the press conference for InFuse’s unveiling at NPE.
On the other side of the spectrum, some new plastics capabilities are arising from new developments in aluminum. Specifically, new aluminum materials for plastic molds. QC-10™ is the next-generation aluminum alloy mold material, developed by Alcoa (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.) to meet the need for mold material with superior thick section properties. The alloy features high purity composition and quench insensitive microstructure, for minimal reductions in strength across section thicknesses. Strength characteristics are said to remain consistent from 8 inches (20 cm) through 24 inches (61 cm), improving machining performance as it retains high strength through the plate thickness.
“Alcoa developed QC-10 in response to customers looking to improve cycle time, machinability and corrosion resistance in thick sections,” says Jeff Nicol, marketing manager, Alcoa Forged Products. He says it is ideal for large-part molding applications.
The aluminum alloy is said to reduce cycle time by 25 percent to 30 percent compared to P20 steel molds. Because aluminum has five times the thermal conductivity of steel, it reduces required cooling times and improves dimensional control of the molded part. The material can also reduce mold production time—it is said to be quicker to machine and polish than P20 steel and beryllium copper alloys. The material is supplied fully tempered, so there’s no need for additional heat treatment after machining. It is stress-relieved to remove a majority of the residual stresses.
Packaging plastics always seem to be at the forefront of environmental restrictions. BASF Corporation sees demand for chloride-free packaging films and is developing grades of its Styrolux® SBC that are blended with general-purpose polystyrene (GPPS) to provide a high degree of clarity, toughness and stiffness. “What’s also important to our customers is that these grades are cost-effective, as well as easy to process and thermoform,” says Sven Riechers, North American business manager for Styrolux SBC.
Styrolux is a portfolio of clear styrene-butadiene copolymers used in injection molding and extrusion thermoplastic applications. In addition to flexible packaging, it is used in medical applications and household appliances.

New Ideas in Material Bonding

Custom compounder PolyOne (Avon Lake, Ohio, U.S.) debuted three new product technologies at NPE—two TPE-based and one engineering thermoplastic alloy. The OnFlex™-S K-Series of styrenic-based TPE’s are intended for soft touch applications in the appliance industry.
“These materials are designed to provide adhesion to various engineering plastic substrates and provide a permanent bond to those materials,” Christopher Landis, business director at PolyOne, tells APPLIANCE. “They’re available in a broad hardness range from 10A to 90A, and in specific grades for bonding to ABS, polycarbonate, nylon, and polyolefin substrates.”
The company can supply the materials in injection molding, extrusion and blow molding grades, for applications in home appliances and power tool grips.
PolyOne is also introducing a TPV line, under the OnFlex™-V tradename. “The market is really looking for custom-formulated TPVs. We are either modifying them for physical property performance or processing performance as requested by our customers,” says Landis. “We work with industry OEMs and their processors to modify our products for their specific needs allowing them to differentiate themselves in their markets.”
The Edgetek™XT High Performance Polymer Alloys series is the third product technology that the company debuted at NPE. These are compounded alloys of polycarbonate with either PBT or PET based resins. The materials are rigid and ductile, with high heat performance and chemical resistance. Applications include lawn and garden and electrical products.
PolyOne let its customers help steer it in the development of these materials. “The thing that drives a lot of our development in engineering plastics is specifically what our customers are asking for,” Landis notes. “In the case of our two shot over-molding materials, the market and customers have really wanted and asked for a cohesive bonding material for substrates such as PC, ABS and nylon.”
When it comes to the TPV line and the Edgetek XT series, the company saw the demand from customers for a custom formulation. This led the company to create a line of products with a broad formulation base, which allows the company to tweak it to its customers needs. According to Landis, “The driver really is our customers telling us what they want and need to succeed versus us just offering standard technologies in the market.”

Ultradur® High Speed is BASF’s PBT (polybutylene terephthalate) designed to be especially easy-flowing—and it is the company’s first engineering plastic to receive the eco-efficiency label. The company says studies demonstrate that products made with the plastic are more eco-efficient than products made of a standard PBT. The good flowability of this new material is said to make production of injection-molded plastic components cheaper as well as help save energy.

Eco-Efficiency Certified Plastics

The Eco-Efficiency Certification Process
The plastic is TÜV-certified for eco-efficiency; the eco-efficiency label is awarded to products or methods that perform better from an environmental and financial standpoint than comparable products or methods.
A product to be certified undergoes an eco-efficiency analysis, certified by the German Technical Control Board (TÜV) of Rhineland/Brandenburg in accordance with the specified guidelines. The analysis is subsequently submitted for a critical review by an independent third party in accordance with DIN ISO 14040 to 14043. In the case of Ultradur High Speed, Professor Hungerbühler of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, wrote the expert opinion.
The eco-efficiency label is valid for the products examined in the analysis. The results have to be reviewed again after 3 years.
The first series component made from the material to make it to the market is a plug-in connector (pictured) for data media, used as a counterpart for cables in laptops, telephones and other devices with an ISDN or DSL connection. The component is manufactured from Ultradur® High Speed B4300 G2, a variant containing 10 percent glass fiber. The small, intricate component weighs just 1.5 g and several million are made per year.

Plant Automation

IQMS (Paso Robles, California, U.S.) designs and develops Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software for repetitive, process and discrete manufacturing. An optional module in the original software required the machines throughout the plant to be connected through cables. At NPE the company introduced the EnterpriseIQ RealTime Wireless Production Monitoring System, using mesh network technology to communicate and removing the wires and cables. It commissioned custom microchips and designed its own circuit boards to facilitate the new system.
The final design uses a gateway system that is hooked to a server workstation. The server workstation is connected to an Oracle server, which communicates to the individual network workstations. The cost of connecting a machine to the production management system has gone from approximately U.S. $500 on the cable-connected system to approximately $300 using the mesh network system. The company has been beta testing the system for 10 months in order to ensure the accuracy of the system.
“We ran it in parallel with the wire system to fix the anomalies since we knew the wired system worked well,” Glenn Nowak, vice president of sales, tells APPLIANCE. “We put the units into two rooms to fine tune any electrical issues we might incur.”
“Lean is the big buzz word right now. We want to ensure the work centers are up and running with the least amount of down time,” Nowak adds. “Also, RealTime can tell how many units are being manufactured to the second, this just assists in the lean manufacturing process.”

Laser IRAM has clear advantages over some current methods for welding plastics, according to Branson Ultrasonics (Danbury, Connecticut, U.S.), which introduced a line of Laser IRAM Assembly Systems at NPE. The most important advantage, Branson says, is weld quality. The process is non-intrusive, so parts typically have good cosmetic properties. The process creates no relative motion between the parts, excitation or vibration, and no heated platens are used; only the weld area is heated and melted. Easy control comes from varying the power of the laser beam, enabling accurate control of power dissipation within the weld, resulting in little flash and no particulate—particularly important in medical device applications. In addition to cleaner welds, the process is said to provide faster cycle time of 3 seconds to 5 seconds.

Outside the Plastic Box

More new ideas are emerging that hold great promise for dramatic and entirely new plastics technologies.
Take the work of material science research teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who came up with a way to inexpensively create a plastic substrate to mechanically harvest fresh water from the air. The team’s paper, published in May 2006 by the American Chemical Society, reports their relatively simple process for creating superhydrophilic patterns on the superhydrophobic surfaces of plastic substrates—a process that mimics the water-harvesting surface on the back of the desert-dwelling Stenocara beetle. Dipping the substrate into a solution of polymer chains that left some of them adhering to a surface, the team succeeded in creating the patterns—and seems to have achieved water harvesting characteristics similar to the beetle’s.
If proven practical to manufacture, it’s not difficult to imagine these plastic materials being used to create home appliances that generate fresh water or enable a new type of dehumidifier.
Plastics materials’ composition possibilities are too vast to quantify. With so much potential, it’s easy to believe there will be plastic solutions found to meet every challenge of the 21st Century appliance industry—as well as make physical all the strangest new ideas from man and from nature.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
BASF Corp. Polyurethanes
Branson Ultrasonics
Dow Chemical Co.
GLS Corporation
Motoman Robotics

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