CHICAGO — Although being soft in a hard town like Chicago probably isn't a good idea, several plastics makers took their chances and focused on soft-touch products during NPE 1997.
Soft-touch products combine thermoplastic elastomers or thermoplastic vulcanates with a variety of resins to provide a softer feel and better grip. Previous soft-touch products focused on blending TPEs with polypropylene, but several new products have placed soft-touch versions of polycarbonate, ABS and nylon within reach.
AlliedSignal Plastics touted its soft-touch deal with Advanced Elastomer Systems LP. The deal will allow AlliedSignal's Capron and Nypel nylon resins to enter the soft-touch market by using AES' Santoprene TPVs.
AES, a TPE market leader based in Akron, Ohio, expects to benefit from the inroads AlliedSignal has made in the power tools and lawn products markets. AlliedSignal, a Morris Township, N.J., resin maker that exhibited at the June 16-20 Chicago show, does 38 percent of its business in those products, the firm said.
DeWalt Drill Co., a division of Black & Decker Corp. of Towson, Md., already is using the Santoprene/nylon mix in the handle for a drywall drill it manufactures.
``When we started, replacing rubber was our mission in life,'' said Ulf Nilsson, AES North American marketing director. ``Now we're seeing other possibilities for our Santoprene products.''
Products targeted in the AES/AlliedSignal deal include appliance knobs, seals and handles; automotive hoses, handles and flapper doors; furniture grips and casters; electrical switches and connectors; housings and handles for lawn and garden tools; and sporting-goods grips and handles.
Other companies with soft-touch on their minds — and in their booths — at NPE included Shell Chemical Co. of Houston, DuPont Dow Elastomers of Wilmington, Del., and GLS Corp. of Cary, Ill.
Shell and GLS introduced new compounds that adhere to PC, ABS and nylon.
Shell's new grades of its Kraton G polymers can be processed by double-barrel injection molding, coextrusion and other thermoplastic fabricating techniques. GLS' Versaflex TPE alloys are based on Shell's Kraton line and are being produced in wet-grip, overmolding and lightweight grades.
DuPont Dow is moving into soft-touch after its success in other markets — primarily automotive — prompted the year-old joint venture to announce a 100 million-pound capacity expansion for its Engage-brand TPEs. Engage, made with Dow's Insite metallocenelike catalyst technology, can replace several resins, including PVC and ethylene-vinyl acetate in soft-touch applications such as personal-care products, the company said.
Although soft-touch has been on the scene several years, its uses are expanding for a number of reasons, industry officials said.
AlliedSignal's Scott Conway chalked soft-touch growth up to ``the aging of America,'' a fact he claims was borne out by market testing in which senior citizens, and aging baby boomers, favored soft-touch applications over standard plastic products.
Early soft-touch uses included better grips for hand tools and kitchen utensils that were easier for people with arthritis to use. An early success story was Oxo International's ``Good Grips'' line of kitchen tools, which uses AES Santoprene. The line won the 1993 Tylenol/Arthritis Foundation design award.
With current expansion into the power tool and lawn products markets, Conway, AlliedSignal's business development manager for consumer products, claims soft-touch reduces vibrations to such a degree that a customer can use a tool 10-15 percent longer before fatigue sets in.
AlliedSignal estimates that 50-70 percent of all handles for power tools, lawn care products and sporting goods will be made of soft-touch material by 2010.
``Soft-touch is more than a fad,'' said Gayle Tomkinson, AES marketing manager for consumer and industrial products. ``When people get an extra-feature value, they don't want to give it up.''
Tomkinson added that including nylon into the soft-touch mix has opened the power tools/lawn products market because nylon is stiffer and more impact-resistant than PP.
Soft-touch nylon products even may have automotive uses by offering noise reduction in under-the-hood applications such as air cleaners. Officials at AlliedSignal and AES offered little detail about such automotive uses, saying only that they are ``early in the [development] cycle.''
GLS marketing manager John Marshall credited breakthroughs in thin-wall molding technology with improving soft-touch production. GLS' Versaflex-brand TPE alloy is a soft-touch product that also offers reduced cycle times and improved surface appearance, the company said.
``It's a design trend,'' Marshall said. ``The industrial design community is starting to embrace soft-touch.''
AlliedSignal sure hopes Marshall and other industry officials are right, since the company said it plans to commit between 15 million and 30 million pounds of nylon resin to soft-touch applications during the next five years.
DuPont Dow, a soft-touch rookie, also is working on a nylon-bondable TPE that would compete with AlliedSignal/AES and Shell, business development manager Michael Garratt said in a June 9 interview.
Garratt admitted he initially was concerned that soft-touch might be a consumer fad, but recent events, such as Schick's use of soft-touch compounds on a disposable razor, changed his mind.
``I was surprised to see soft-grip used in nonpremium items,'' Garratt said.
``You used to only see it in the top-line products, but now it's being used in items with lower value.''
DuPont Dow also sees soft-touch potential in watercraft such as windsurfers because of its good wet-grip characteristics, Garratt added.
Walter Ripple, account manager for Shell's Kraton, said Kraton's new overmolded grades for PC, ABS and nylon received ``a tremendous response'' at NPE.
``Anything with a soft, pleasing feel and grip has been in demand for the last two or three years,'' Ripple said. ``I don't think it's a passing thing.''
Ripple also said Shell is evaluating additional Kraton grades with the expectation that customers will want ``something even softer.''
However, he added that customers also seek out the product because of its high tensile strength, cold-temperature flexibility and good weatherability and colorability factors.
``We've received a lot of calls from people asking about overmolding possibilities,'' Ripple said. ``We're definitely planning on pursuing other applications.''