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issue: September 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Feature: Plastics
Expanding Horizons


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Tim Somheil, editor

Plastics are evolving to meet OEM needs for sustainability and speed.

PolyOne has developed new design techniques that result in no visible weld lines when using metallic special effect rigid vinyl molding compounds, opening new opportunities for these materials, and their inherent aesthetic and cost advantages, in higher-end appliance applications.

 ON LOCATION

APPLIANCE magazine was in Chicago for the NPE 2009 plastics exposition.

There are thousands of very different substances that get lumped together under the term “plastics,” and this vast selection of materials offers an unrivaled range of versatility when used to design durable products. There is a material to meet almost any existing need. As was quite evident on the floor of the NPE exhibition in Chicago, plastics material suppliers are also developing materials to meet new needs and trends as they arise.

Designed for Sustainability

All types of consumer goods are being designed with an eye toward sustainability. One of the winners at the International Plastics Design Competition held during NPE was the KOR ONE Hydration Vessel, which was recognized with the Sustainable Consumer Product Award. It’s not quite an appliance; it is a refillable water bottle, and its design is specifically intended to inspire consumers to reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles. The water bottle producer is KOR Ideas, Inc. (Fountain Valley, CA, U.S.; www.korwater.com) and the design firm was RKS Design, Inc. (Thousand Oaks, CA, U.S.; www.rksdesign.com).

The wellness concerns of the users of the water bottle users were addressed in the material choice. The Tritan copolyester comes from Eastman Chemical Company (Kingsport, TN, U.S.; www.eastman.com) and was chosen in part because it met one the design criteria: that the material be free of bisphenol-A (BPA).

BPA has been an enormously useful component of plastics for a half-century, including in thousands of food-contact applications. Some recent studies on the impact of BPA on human health had less-than-definitive results, but still resulted in a backlash against BPA-containing products. Consumers began avoiding them and retailers began specifying BPA-free goods from their suppliers. Government rhetoric heated up over contradictory claims, particularly when some U.S. states and cities moved to ban BPA-containing plastics in some products. BPA—whatever science concludes about its safety—will be burdened with a sullied reputation for the foreseeable future.

Materials suppliers like Eastman have been searching for ways to satisfy consumer needs without it. Tritan copolyester was developed to have the clarity and toughness advantages of traditional copolyesters and offer high heat and chemical resistance, design flexibility, and ease of processing. Applications include small appliances, housewares, and some medical devices. The material’s credibility got an extra boost on Aug. 18, 2009, when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a favorable opinion supporting the safety of Tritan. The monomer used in Tritan can now be added to the list of acceptable monomers for making plastics for food packaging.

Small appliance parts often go into the dishwasher for cleaning, and Eastman sees a growing desire from consumers for plastic products that are tough, clear, and durable in the dishwasher. The company points out that products molded from the new copolyester can handle regular exposure to heat and aggressive cleaning agents without crazing, cracking, and hazing.

The KOR ONE Hydration Vessel was designed, down to the material choice of Eastman Tritan copolyester, to inspire sustainability.

Goods Looks, Controlled Costs

And its important that consumer products look good, out of the box and years later. What’s true of small appliances is also true of majors.

Appliance consumers fell in love with stainless steel and it became the definitive finish on major appliances in the high-end kitchen. In the laundry room, consumers felt freer to experiment with bright colors. Now, plastics that incorporate the look of metal and offer unprecedented moldability are offering new design opportunities in major appliances throughout the home.

PolyOne’s new Geon-brand metallic special effect rigid vinyl molding compounds give product designers the use of bold colors and metallic accents. Also important to the appliance OEM is the potential for cost savings, which can come from eliminating painting, plating, or other processes that might have been used to achieve a metallic look. More cost can be saved by reducing returns resulting from surface flaws. The surface color is that of the material itself, so an appliance won’t be sent back for an imperfect paint job or post-coating damage.

While appliance OEMs have known about metallic-pigment polymers for some time, molding challenges limited their use. A tendency to show weld lines made them unsuitable for premium appliance applications. PolyOne points to its color matching expertise and knowledge of part design, tool configuration, and process optimization, which enable it to configure parts with hidden weld lines. “Our hands-on approach to helping customers—whether that is through collaboration with the OEM, tool builder, molder, or all three—results in real, value-creating solutions for our customers,” says Mike Balasko, senior marketing manager, Geon Compounds.

The Designer’s Friend

Accelerating the product development cycle has become an important strategy for cost reduction, and OEMs are increasingly looking for new digital technologies that will make product design less iterative and time-intensive.

Protomold (Maple Plain, MN, U.S.; www.protomold.com) developed a rapid injection molding process that enables parts production in a matter of days. An online system allows the design engineer to plug in part properties interactively and instantly see how changes to the properties impact the end price. The system accommodates any part molds than can be cut using three-axis CNC milling, and molds are made from aluminum alloys. This, combined with a process that’s is extremely standardized and automated, makes the service extremely economical.

The service is often used by design engineers in need of quick prototypes, but its also useful as bridge tooling so manufacturers can have their parts in-hand for pilot production, even while waiting for final production tooling to be ready. The service can even be used for full-scale production for lower-volume parts. In fact, the company says rapid injection molding can in some cases provide cost advantages in runs of thousands of parts.

Nature Makes Resin

The appliance industry has done a good job over many decades making the best use of the materials that deliver the finest products to their customers. Historically slim margins created a culture of economy over the years, and today it is an industry that knows how to embrace efficiency in many forms. Plastics helped the appliances industry cut costs, cut emissions, and reduce resource use for decades. Even as the wide-ranging category of materials called plastics takes heat for being unfriendly to the environment, it also deserves credit for helping save energy, save resources, and cut emissions.

Still, any product that is petroleum-based will be contending with an inherent undercurrent of negative public perception—not to mention a lack of raw material pricing dependability. Research has been underway for some years to come up with materials processed out of renewable resources. Finally, bio-based plastics are beginning to be supplied with processing characteristics and material properties that make them viable alternatives for a growing list of packaging, aesthetic, and even structural parts.

DuPont Engineering Polymers has said in years past that it intended to come up with renewably sourced engineering polymers, and at NPE 2009 it made good on that promise, announcing the full commercialization of several families of products. Marsha Craig, global business manager for Engineering Polymers, said the company wants to offer polymers that are at least 20% renewably sourced and offer performance as good as, or better than, the performance of the entirely petrochemically based materials they replace. Customers, she said, will not have to chose between performance and environmental improvement.

Several products are already being commercialized using these renewably sourced polymers. Although none of them are yet in the appliance industry, the nature of the applications make it clear that these are, indeed, high-performance materials. Sporting good OEM Salomon is making ski boots using DuPont Hytrel RS thermoplastic elastomer components. Hytrel RS contains 20-60% renewably sourced ingredients by weight. The company’s Zytel 610 nylon resin is being used in even more extreme conditions—Denso Corporation’s automotive radiator end tank. This is the first use of the company’s renewably sourced plastic in mechanical components exposed to such a hot, chemically aggressive environment. Zytel PA 610 is more than 60% by weight renewably sourced. Another grade, Zytel PA 1010, is 100% renewably sourced.

In addition to engineering resins, DuPont launched renewably sourced packaging materials: Biomax TPS thermoplastic starch and Biomax PTT injection moldable resin. Biomax TPS sheet stock contains 80-90% renewable content for thermoformed items and resins for injection-molded parts and containers. Biomax PTT contains up to 35% renewably sourced content for packaging applications where polyesters are used.

The industry would like nothing better than to educate consumers about the realities of plastics and their benefits, particularly in terms of packaging materials. Glenn Wright, Dow Chemical Company (Midland, MI, U.S.; www.dow.com) commercial vice president for North American Basic Plastics, spoke to gathered plastics industry professionals earlier this year and challenged them to work together toward 100% recyclable packaging solutions.

“Plastic packaging is viewed by many consumers as waste, or a problem, or in some cases as unnecessary,” said Wright. “In reality, packaging should be viewed as a waste reducer. It contributes to the extended shelf life of many food products and reduces the amount of product lost to contamination. Through material science advances, companies like Dow are also creating opportunities for thinner and lighter-weight packaging, which can translate into tangible resource savings.”

The industry as a whole needs to pool its efforts to demonstrate the concept of life-cycle thinking when it comes to plastic packaging. “From first uses to multiple re-use or traditional recycling, and eventually to the concept of recycle-to-energy—sometimes known as energy-from-waste,” Wright said. “This last idea is exciting because it could potentially allow us to make two good uses of plastic packaging, first to save resources when used in a package and second as a source of energy that we could harness.”

Dow called on industry leaders to find ways to change the industry. For example, with all rigid packaging materials being recyclable, could the recycling number on packaging be eliminated to reduce confusion and increase participation? Could improved product marking help consumers better understand the packaging materials’ second life value.

Consumers will find it difficult to ignore the fact that the plastics industry is going to great lengths to make its products greener.

 

 

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