Ever-dwindling demand for PCs offset somewhat by small devices

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LAS VEGAS (Jan. 31, 3:25 p.m. ET) — Designers continue to use materials, including plastics, in creative ways as they pursue cost-effective, customer-grabbing appearances for personal computers.

Some high-end, Ultrabook-type subnotebook computers, for instance, might have a magnesium-alloy frame with a plastic coating, although at least one top brand molds plastic for a bottom surface of an advanced product, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Mass.

Among design alternatives, “cast aluminum adds cost and weight to get a nice look and stiffness,” he said in a phone interview. “Then carbon-fiber [reinforced composite] is stiff and nice and light” with the potential to display the fiber through a clear substrate.

Kay noted a trade-off.

“Some non-plastics material is harder to work” and may involve complex and costly casting and curing processes. Notebook ven­dors will continue to use plastic in mid- and low-end products, he said.

Kay said that, at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show, held Jan. 10-23 in Las Vegas, he saw equipment with leather accents, brushed-metal finishes and bamboo chassis. He noted the use of plastics in numerous computer accessories, including the iPhone 4S case.

Apple Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., uses an all-metal enclosure for its high-end, Ultrabook-type computers, a housing with internal plastic and external metal for midlevel units and a housing of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for low-end models. Catcher Technology Co. Ltd. of Taiwan City, Taiwan, is a major Apple enclosure supplier.

In a preliminary report Jan. 11, Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. said Hewlett Packard Co. shipped 60.6 million personal computers during 2011, logging a 17.2 percent share of the global market. Lenovo Group Ltd. shipped 45.7 million units for 13 percent, and Dell Inc. shipped 42.9 million for 12.1 percent.

Gartner, a technology research firm, reported HP’s global share slipped to 16 percent in the fourth quarter vs. the 2010 comparable quarter. Lenovo rose to 14 percent on the basis, it said, of an aggressive pricing strategy.

A lag in 2011 holiday shipments reflects continuously low consumer demand for personal computers, said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “While economic uncertainty in Western Europe had an effect on consumer PC shipments, expectations of a healthier economic outlook in North America could not stimulate consumer PC demand in that region,” she said.

Materials joint venture Styrolution Group GmbH of Frankfurt projects 2012 industry growth in the use of high-impact polystyrene and ABS in the 3C market for computing, communication and consumer-electronics applications.

“This will be driven by increased global demand for televisions [about 13-15 percent], notebooks [10 percent] and significant growth in demand for tablets,” said Sven Riechers, director and head of global 3C business for Styrolution subsidiary Styrolution South East Asia Pte. Ltd. in Singapore. “We also expect moderate growth in the hard-copy market that is dominated by styrenic materials.”

Styrolution reports that some players in 3C businesses are downgrading to high-gloss HIPS from ABS — despite lower performance — because of high ABS raw material costs. In some cases, they are using recycled materials.

“In China we have observed manufacturers’ relocation projects from the coastal areas towards inland China to cope with cost increases and manpower constraints,” Riechers said in an email. “In addition, customers in Asia are now investing more in natural plus masterbatch solutions instead of pre-colored materials to enable them to be more flexible and to reduce inventories. This will also require resin manufacturers to offer state-of-the-art natural materials.”

Styrolution said its styrenics are used in the global manufacturing of one-half of all inkjet and laser printers worldwide. Brother Industries Ltd. of Nagoya, Japan, is a Styrolution customer.

Styrolution is a styrenics joint venture between BASF SE of Ludwigshafen, Germany, and Ineos Industries Holdings Ltd. of Lyndhurst, England, and has 17 plants in 10 countries.

It’s a smaller world

Observers at Bayer AG units see interest in thin component walls, green materials and transparent/translucent characteristics for electronic, computer and office devices.

“With the world being consistently more ‘plugged in,’ devices are required to be more portable, leading to smaller enclosures,” said Kevin Dunay, North American leader for the polycarbonates segment of Bayer MaterialScience LLC in Pittsburgh. “Because they are smaller and more compact, these devices utilize less material. Since these applications would incorporate flame-retardant materials, a natural trend progression would be an increased demand for [Underwriters Labora­- tories Inc.] flame-retardant-rated materials at lower thicknesses.”

Regarding heat dissipation in smaller devices, “Bayer is currently developing thermally conductive materials that may address this need,” Dunay said. “Increased portability of electronics will also drive the need for materials with improved stiffness.”

Mike Shi, regional marketing manager of business machines for the Bayer MaterialScience unit in Shanghai, said: “I believe use of polymer materials in electronic, computing and office devices will grow because these materials are ideal for devices that are slimmer and lighter weight, and injection molding offers greater production efficiency vs. metal processing.

“We will see greater interest in ‘green’ plastic material,” Shi said. “Wanting to be environmentally responsible and sustainable may provide the impetus for an increased use of bio-based polycarbonate materials in the electronics market.”

Compared with metals, “plastics have the upper hand in handhelds, tablets and laptops because metals generally require a secondary-operations step to achieve the desired surface finish,” said Mark Matsco, Bayer MaterialScience application development director. “In general, the use of metals typically creates ‘over-engineering’ with regard to the mechanical properties required for [information technology] applications, whereas plastics’ properties can be more easily tailored to meet the application needs.”

Shi cited specification of glass-fiber-reinforced Makrolon PC — rather than metal — for some designs of high-end subnotebooks and tablet personal computers.

Dunay said metals and plastics cycle in applications.

“Currently, metals are being used in applications where tight tolerances are necessary, but reinforced plastics can be used, if designed properly, with the added benefit of more integration to reduce process steps and costs,” Dunay said. Plastics also are being used to protect metal in some applications, such as a Makrolon protective case from Innovez LLC of Chicago for the iPhone 4.

Matsco noted “stylistic trends,” including the use of transparent and translucent materials for styling features, and moving away from a ‘metallic’ look.

“I believe sustainability will continue to push designs toward ease of assembly and disassembly, and designs with higher shape complexity lending themselves to processing via injection molding,” Matsco said. “Secondary operations, such as precision machining and deburring, will be reduced through innovative parts consolidation utilizing the injection molding process and tooling.”

For computer monitors, the U.S. market is declining, the worldwide trend remains flat and the geographical composition of the global market is shifting.

According to a 2010 report by International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., “The majority of consumers and commercial entities in the U.S. perceive a high degree of homogeneity between competing monitor products and increasingly view these products as plug-and-play peripherals. Users are content to keep their monitors until product failure necessitates a replacement.”

As a result, U.S. consumers are lengthening the time for monitor replacements and continuing to favor notebooks as their primary computing device. “The monitor-to-notebook attachment rate has historically been poor, and we believe this trend will continue,” IDC said.

 “Monitor vendors faced with declining average selling prices in mature markets such as the U.S. will begin to focus more on emerging markets,” said Linn Huang, IDC senior research analyst in San Mateo, Calif. “The monitor markets in Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa will experience moderate to significant growth in the coming four years.”

IDC projects 2012 global monitor shipments of 164.2 million, down 0.3 percent from 164.7 million last year. The U.S. projection drops 10.7 percent to 23.8 million, after a 10.3 percent decline during 2011 compared with 2010.

Monitor vendors seeking to boost average selling prices in the U.S. may begin moving product lines to higher-end technologies and new industrial designs in an effort to differentiate between previous and current products.

IDC anticipates that the effort could involve wider adoption of light-emitting-diode backlighting; introduction of additional in-plane-switching, liquid-crystal-display consumer monitors; slimming of monitor profiles; and thinning of front-surround bezels.

Endpoint’s Kay said the distinction between monitors for television and computer applications “is almost gone.”

User satisfaction with personal computers reached an all-time high score of 87 on the 100-point scale of the American Customer Satisfaction Index LLC of Ann Arbor, Mich. Apple, with 87 points, led the category for the eighth year in a row. HP of Palo Alto, Calif., was second with 78 points. ACSI released the results in September.

See other stories in the Plastics in Electronics Special Report:

Cell phone makers look to Asia for sales

Bayer unit puts EAP muscle into touch-feely iPod app

Dow additive keeps PC from scratching