CHICAGO — A new company plans to commercialize technology to make wood-filled thermoplastic resin for injection molding applications. The firm will capitalize on millions of dollars in research conducted by the Department of Agriculture's famous Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.
The new firm, Northwood Plastics Inc. in Sheboygan, Wis., will have a single twin-screw compounding machine. Partners in the firm include a longtime Forest Products Lab industrial specialist and the general manager of Lear Corp.'s Sheboygan substrates operation.
Northwood Plastics will be a ``nonauto, general commodity,'' plastics compounder in 15,000 square feet of manufacturing space, said Kevin Gohr, a partner in the operation.
The partners say that although the wood flour-filled compounds are tricky to use, they can be used to make an injection molded product with attractive woodlike appearance that can be molded with 10 percent less heat in a shorter cycle.
The finished products are lighter than comparable talc- or mineral-filled plastic parts, for the same price. Cycle times are shorter because there is less polymer to heat in the half-wood, half-plastic mixture, proponents said.
Brent English, who has researched several practical uses for wood-filled polypropylene homopolymers and copolymers at the Forest Products Lab for the past five years, announced the formation of Northwood Plastics in a meeting Nov. 12 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
``I can't do any business until I leave the Forest Products lab,'' English said. ``Otherwise, it would be a conflict of interest.''
English, who said he worked on the formation of Northwood on his own time, has announced his resignation from the lab.
English said the lab's investment over the past 10 years has been ``several million dollars,'' especially in research on wood-filled polymers. ``The particular project I reported on in Chicago cost $340,000 — one of the two biggest projects we've ever done.''
Without mentioning his incorporation plans, English outlined the Forest Products lab's research efforts at the Society of Plastics Engineers recycling conference Nov. 7 in Chicago.
Also in the partnership is Gohr, now general manager of automotive interior manufacturing giant Lear Corp.'s Sheboygan operations. Gohr said Northwood does not expect to make any product until March. He said his role is now just one of an investor, but he hinted at the possibility of becoming Northwood's general manager.
The third partner, Andrea Savanuzzi, is credited with bringing the wood-filled thermoplastic used at Lear to the United States from Italy in 1983.
Savonuzzi sold his sheet-making company to auto interior component maker Automotive Industries Inc., which was purchased by Lear in 1995.
The fourth partner is Willard Neese, a Sheboygan thermoset molder who manufactures dinnerware using wood flour, according to Gohr.
He declined to elaborate on the four partners' investment in Northwood.
The Lear plant in Sheboygan uses about 25 million pounds a year of a similar wood-filled thermoplastic sheet, called Woodstock, to make interior panels and seatback shelves for Ford, Mazda and General Motors. Woodstock sheet, a 24-year-old Italian invention, is used in the automobile industry and manufactured by Lear and other companies worldwide, according to Gohr.
At the SPE meeting, English said that the Forest Products Lab, which has a huge supply of mostly ponderosa pine, maple and birchwood flour and fibers, said efforts to interest the wood products industry in a plastic product ``was a mistake — one that was corrected only in the last three years with the marketing to plastics processors.''
``A lot of people have tried [injection molding with thermoplastic wood-filled pellets] and failed. They've run at too-high temperatures, without drying, or with an inappropriate polymer selection. We've tried to help people along the learning curve, to demonstrate that these materials can be successfully used for performance and processing abilities,'' English said.
``The only difficulty in using it is controlling the moisture content'' going into the twin screw. Dryers must be used in the manufacturing process to provide a usable wood-filled pellet with a moisture content of less than one-tenth of 1 percent, he said.