SOUTH BEND, IND. - The Triton Barrier, a water-filled highway barrier that absorbs the shock of a vehicle crash, is a product that could be made only by rotational molding, according to its manufacturer. A demonstration video shows a car sideswiping the orange and white Triton barriers, linked together with cables and interlocking pins. Water sprays out, a few sections get moved a few feet, and the car comes to a stop. Spin-Cast Plastics Inc. of South Bend rotomolds the hollow barrier around a large metal skeleton insert, which adds structural support. The resin is linear low density polyethylene.
The Triton is the type of product rotomolding advocates point to with pride - a unique plastic product that does things traditional materials, such as concrete barricades, can't do. Triton is the first device of its kind to qualify as ``crashworthy'' under strict federal standards, according to the company.
Even so, it isn't easy selling crash-safety products to highway departments, according to officials of Spin-Cast and its parent, Chicago-based Energy Absorption Systems Inc. EAS is part of the publicly traded firm Quixote Corp., also of Chicago.
Anybody who drives the interstate highways knows that the market for energy-absorbing safety products is huge, at least potentially. However, despite solid growth, the market has not exploded yet, according to George Ebersole, EAS president. EAS, with sales of about $45 million to $50 million, has about 70 percent of the market. The company pioneered the first highway crash cushions in the late 1960s. The Triton, which quickly can be set in place and filled with water, is approved for use in 27 states.
One challenge is serving, essentially, a different ``market'' in each state.
``The first thing you need to do is to get approval from the Federal Highway Administration,'' Ebersole said, which means the product has proven it will perform as advertised. ``Once you have that, that kind of gives you a license to sell to the states. Then you have to go through the same process once again'' before state departments of transportation.
Another challenge is to enable highway officials to visualize how the product works. That is not a problem with reflector strips or signs, but crash barriers are a different story.
``How do you know that it works? You don't, unless yourun into one,'' Ebersole said.
The company ``proves'' products on a California test track.
Eric Strom, Spin-Cast vice president and general manager, said sometimes it takes a highway tragedy to spotlight crash-safety dangers.
``What we've got here is a solution to a problem that most people don't recognize as a problem until there's a fatality or serious injury,'' he said.
On the plus side, a movement is growing in Congress to separate four transportation trust funds from the federal budget. Such a move - supported by EAS - would remove $33 billion generated by taxes on gasoline and airplane tickets from the debate over deficit reduction. The money goes to airports, highways and bridges.
In South Bend, Spin-Cast runs seven rotomolding machines, generating rotomolding sales of $8 million a year, according to Plastics News and industry estimates. In addition to highway safety products, Spin-Cast also does custom molding for a wide range of markets.
Strom would like to see new materials developed for rotomolding.
``If we just had a rotomoldable ABS, this would be just a killer process,'' he said.
EAS was founded in 1969. Its first product was a water-filled bumper for taxicabs. Below are some of the products the company makes today:
The Energite III System, a series of yellow barrels filled with sand. When a vehicle hits the barrels, they break open and sand spills onto the vehicle, slowing it down. Spin-Cast molds the high density PE barrel, an HDPE inside cone that supports the sand and a black LLDPE lid.
The G-R-E-A-T System and the Hex-Foam Sandwich System, two crash cushions with black rotomolded LLDPE boxes filled with polyurethane foam. The boxes absorb the impact and slow the vehicle.
The Hi-Dro Sandwich and Hi-Dro Cluster Systems, and the CushionWall System. Spin-Cast rotomolds PVC tubes that stand upright, acting as water-filled cells.