ST. LOUIS — Make way for the newest name in personal computers: GE Plastics.
The Pittsfield, Mass., plastics material supplier does not plan to compete with the likes of Compaq, Dell and the other electronics giants in the sale of home PCs.
Instead, GE Plastics just created a prototype desktop PC, the Nomad, and is to design a laptop version called Fulcrum in late April.
This winter, the company started shopping its plastic-laden prototype to the world's foremost home electronics manufacturers, said Thomas Hablitzel, GE Plastics industry manager for computing devices. That process will move into hyperdrive once Fulcrum is introduced.
The wraps were taken off those computer prototype products March 29 in St. Louis during the spring meeting of the Industrial Designers Society of America's Materials & Processes Section.
GE Plastics hopes to get in on the ground floor with those companies by helping them meet their greatest design challenges with plastics, Hablitzel said. The resin supplier would like to play a part in future computer designs.
If successful, the project would boost the amount of plastics in home desktop computers, an area still ruled by metal for many housings and internal parts.
And ultimately, the company plans to replace those steel parts with GE Plastics' materials, said senior industrial designer Nigel Watts of Polymer Solutions Inc., a Pittsfield-based joint venture of GE Plastics and industrial design firm Fitch Inc.
Watts spoke at the meeting of Great Falls, Va.-based IDSA. The gathering was part of the Applied Plastics Technology & Design Conference, sponsored by the Structural Plastics Division of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
The Nomad project started last summer after GE Plastics conducted extensive research on consumer lifestyles and computers. Research revealed the No. 1 future priority to be portability.
That led to a need for lighter-weight, compact plastic systems, Watts said. Hence, the name that suggests wanderlust for the small, portable Nomad, which merges a laptop's mobility with a desktop system's hardware.
Nomad would swap plastic for steel in a desktop PC's hard-drive housing and in such internal parts as disk-drive bays, card cages and the chassis holding screws and other components. The company would use GE's Cycoloy resin, an ABS and polycarbonate blend.
Plastics already has logged on for many computer parts. In 1997, about 60 million home systems were sold worldwide, Hablitzel said. Those desktops used about 540 million pounds of plastics, or 9 pounds per computer.
Still, growth in plastics use, about 13 percent last year, has not been from new applications, but from the sharp rise in home PC sales, Hablitzel added.
The company estimated that its design could cut the number of desktop parts needed by almost half — from more than 100 to 57 — and assembly time from 101/2 minutes to as little as 6.2 minutes, Watts said. Molded parts also make computer upgrades easier, he said. Cost of the machines, even with higher-priced plastic, would be equivalent to today's systems, he said.
``This opens the door for us with computer manufacturers, and that's all we really want to accomplish,'' said Watts, who helped design the plastic computer. ``We're not going to make computers, but we want to show the industry our capabilities as designers.''
But the supplier faces some challenges before computer makers climb on board. For starters, plastic parts need to be shielded with metal or spray coatings — both costly processes — so they do not discharge radioactive emissions. They also need protection from extreme heat for best performance.
GE Plastics has developed a carbon-filled Cycoloy material that shields plastic from electromagnetic emissions without metal plating or spray coats, said Polymer Solutions industrial designer Matthijs Gerlings. The material contains 15-20 percent carbon, less than pricier carbon-filled resins.
The company also has used Icepak thermal analysis software from Fluent Inc. to study how heat, especially from computer chips, affects plastic parts. Doing so has helped it design internal parts that disperse the heat so one area is not susceptible, Gerlings said. That eliminates the need for noisy, built-in fans.
The Nomad also trots out other plastics capabilities, including the use of thin-wall parts through sequential valve gating, and development of a flat-panel screen, plastic internal chassis and snap fits and ribs.