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issue: November 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine European Edition

Plastics Technology
Forming New Ideas


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Appliance makers need new ideas to facilitate product differentiation and cost-reduction, while adhering to a new set of material rules.

The tub of this washer-dryer from Fagor (Mondragon, Spain) is designed with Hostacom HKG126D material from Basell.

This past July, Europe’s much-anticipated RoHS restrictions kicked in, banning the use of certain hazardous substances. While the plastics industry has solved most of its RoHS challenges and offers compliant materials for many applications, 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 European regulations attempt 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, for example, is supplying BSH Bosch & Siemens Home Appliances, the U.S. company owned by Germany’s BSH Bosch und Siemens Hausgeräte, with a grade of its Hostacom PP (polypropylene) used for a tumble dryer chassis, base, stock shield, and ring insert. According to Basell (Hoofddorp, Netherlands), material weight was reduced compared to the previous metal parts, 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 (Ludwigshafen, Germany) and Econeer USA (Costa Mesa, California, U.S.)
are developing biodegradable plastics, 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, Massa-chusetts, 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.

In multi-material molding, Thermoplastic Elastomers (TPE) are frequently co-molded with other resins to deliver special material characteristics such as flexible, soft-touch or non-slip finishes. Common applications are appliance knobs, power tool housings and casters. One challenge that processors face in producing multi-material moldings is segregating and recovering dissimilar resins to reduce their cost of waste. In addition, such labor is expensive and can create employee ergonomic risks. Add to this escalating resin prices, and there is an urgency to recycle these mixed plastic resins. As a solution, Eriez Magnetics (Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.) has introduced a patented material and process to enable the automated separation of dissimilar polymers. Using the PolyMag process, molders can recover their scrap materials, without cross contamination, and use these materials for new parts. ExxonMobil Chemical Company (Akron, OH, U.S.), for example, uses the process when its Santoprene thermoplastic vulcanizate (TPV) is co-molded with other materials.

Material Concepts

Performance and cost, of course, are always key considerations to appliance OEMs, and plastics suppliers are working hard to develop innovative materials that meet those needs. The Dow Chemical Company, based in Midland, Michigan, U.S. with European offices in Horgen, Switzerland, is using 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 its latest material family—InFuse™ Olefin Block Coploymers (OBCs). According to Dow, the family represents 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.
On the other side of the spectrum, some new plastics capabilities are arising from new developments in aluminum. One example is new aluminum materials for plastic molds. QC-10™ is the next-generation aluminum alloy mold material, developed by Alcoa. The global company, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., wanted 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 20 cm through 61 cm, improving machining performance as it retains high strength through the plate thickness.
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.
Custom compounder PolyOne (Avon Lake, Ohio, U.S.) recently introduced the OnFlex™-S K-Series of styrenic-based TPEs 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 10 A to 90 A, and in specific grades for bonding to ABS, polycarbonate, nylon, and polyolefin substrates.”
The worldwide 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.”

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.

Automatic Durability

Plastics are being used to protect other appliance components from exposure to the elements and enabling new controls configurations that were once impractical outside. Luran® S, a highly weather resistant styrene plastics material manufactured by Germany-based BASF, is used to protect the electronic components of the Husqvarna’s Automower™. The programmable robotic lawnmower, made by Swedish outdoor equipment manufacturer Husqvarna, frees homeowners from the chore of mowing the lawn.
Realizing reliability is just as important to users as convenience, Husqvarna’s engineers have sheltered the electronic components of the outdoor appliance in a dark-green housing made of a specialty plastic based on an Acrylonitrile-styrene-acrylate copolymer (ASA). The elastomeric component of this material consists of a highly resistant acrylate rubber, and the dark-green pigments were specially selected to be both durable and colorfast.
As a result, the material can reportedly withstand extreme weather conditions, keeping the surface colors of the programmable robotic lawnmower intact after years of use. The company says that the plastic is also UV-resistant and doesn’t require any painting, which helps protect against scratching.
The plastic material is said to offer production advantages as well. The company says the Luran S type 757G used to produce the lawnmower body is particularly easy flowing, thus guaranteeing that the relatively large, complex shaped part is uniformly filled and is molded with a high-quality surface finish. The plastic body, measuring 70 cm in length and 60 cm in width, acts as a collision sensor. It also protects the chassis that houses the entire inner workings of the device—the electric motors, the PIN coded electronic unit, an alarm system, and several sensors. These sensors can detect the demarcation wires that come with the Automower system and that are placed along the perimeter of the lawn. The sensors, however, can also recognize obstacles such as trees and pets.

Eco-Efficiency Certified Plastics

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.

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.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Alcoa
Basell GmbH
BASF Corp. Engineering Plastics
Dow Chemical
Eriez Magnetics
Exxon Chemical Co.
Metabolix
PolyOne Corp.
 

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