ANDOVER, MASS. - Greater opportunities and new responsibilities face the plastics community worldwide as it approaches the third millennium. That was the consensus at ``Design for the 21st Century,'' a New England technical conference of the Society of Plastics Engineers, held Oct. 16-18 in Andover.
Robert J. Cleereman, founder and global director of Dow Chemical Co.'s Materials Engineering Center in Midland, Mich., said, ``Plastics opportunities lie in creating new solutions for old needs.''
Dividing those opportunities into two classes, ``new-to-the-world products,'' and ``substitutions,'' Cleereman said substitutions present the far greater opportunity, particularly with durable goods.
``New wants or needs, coupled with new technology, trigger the opening for substitution,'' Cleereman said. ``Someone creates a new solution that provides more functionality.''
An unlimited number of applications may exist for any given product, Cleereman said.
``The best in terms of functionality, cost and customer perception becomes the winner,'' he said.
Unfortunately, new system solutions often are created that ignore the viability of plastics, Cleereman said.
``All too often, durable goods manufacturers have preconceived attitudes about plastics that eliminate our industry from the contest without an opportunity to show our stuff,'' Cleereman said.
The key is to get durable goods designers coupled with the plastics industry early, he said, so that the plastics solution can happen.
``If we do that, plastics is absolutely going to thrive,'' Cleereman said.
Supporting his hypothesis, Cleereman noted, most durable goods are complex assemblies. Traditional materials - the predominant example being steel -are only available in flat or constant shape geometries, requiring a multitude of pieces and parts to achieve functionality.
Conversely, plastic, due to its intrinsic free-form nature, can assume a multitude of shapes as a single piece, eliminating numerous parts and attendant secondary operations.
Demonstrating the reality of his contention at the industrial level, Cleereman cited John Deere's Stealth riding mower in which three pieces of plastic replace 153 steel parts.
The application consolidated parts and eliminated unit operations to such an extent that very expensive engineering polymers effectively replaced very low-cost steel assembled at a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, Cleereman said.
``The resulting product outperformed the incumbent in all measured performance features,'' added Cleereman, ``including customer reaction.''
Commenting on Cleereman's example, moderator Jay Olson of Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill., testified that previously, Deere feared that consumers would not perceive any composite as favorably as steel.
In an automotive case history, Michel Gazaix, project manager on the Renault Mosaic all-composite front structure, explained that four-year, $70 million research endeavor.
``At the beginning of the project,'' said Gazaix, ``[we] were [perceived] as crazy.'' However, ``the results have validated [our] original design strategy ... and we feel we have opened the way for design for the 21st century in automotive structures.''
Gazaix, of Mitras Automotive Division in Brussels, Belgium, was given a specific volume available for design.
``Within that volume we could do what we wanted,'' said Gazaix, attributing success to the project's design freedoms.
The goal was to prove the technical and economic feasibility of composites in a complex, technically demanding module, such as an automotive front structure. The most critical parameter was the ability to pass a crash test at 31 miles per hour.
According to Gazaix, a special material was developed, named High-Modulus Compound, which represents an evolution of the well-known sheet molding compound process but has a much higher glass content in combination with a new vinyl ester hybrid resin system.
``The results were better than expected,'' said Gazaix, who reported that for the same weight, the prototype absorbed two or three times the energy absorbed by steel, improving car safety.
Comparing the prototype's front structure to the Clio, Renault's reference car in steel, Gazaix said the prototype demonstrated a 30 percent reduction in weight and a 90 percent reduction in parts [from 80 in steel to nine in plastic], reducing the number of assembly steps from 30 to three.
Plastics' new growth opportunities in durable goods come with new responsibilities, according to Winston A. Knight, vice president of Boothroyd Dewhurst in Kings-ton, R.I.
Knight said the European community already is promulgating laws to assess fiscal penalties on the pricing of products for the ultimate cost of disposal and environmental impact.
Knight also predicted that cradle-to-grave analysis will become part of everyday life within the global manufacturing community in five to 10 years.