DEARBORN, MICH. — Looking like a leftover prop from Star Wars, a point-and-shoot laser gun could usher in a new era for plastic auto-parts recycling.
With the financial backing of Ford Motor Co.'s Visteon parts-making unit, the device is no plaything. The infrared laser gun, attached to a 5-foot mobile console called the RP-1, is beginning commercial production and will be rolled out this year to plastic recyclers and resin companies.
The RP-1 is considerably faster and more accurate that other resin-identifying machines, said Visteon materials engineer Anthony Brooks at the company's Dearborn-based engineering test facility.
Visteon has put about $500,000 into the device's development since 1996, Brooks said.
Visteon is counting on resin suppliers to latch onto the device, which it says will shrink recycling costs.
``We don't mind putting a little scare into resin companies,'' said Brooks, who helps lead Visteon's interior parts recycling work. ``We'd like to get a better sense of support from them. What we really want to find out is who really wants to recycle plastics and get a commitment from those companies.''
Still, the RP-1 has to pass several hurdles, including price and the ability to read black plastic. Some industry experts say it is a step forward but not the end goal.
Last year, Visteon made 15 types of recycled-content parts, using about 50.5 million pounds of recycled material, Brooks said. In the process, the company saved about $5.1 million by using recycled resins instead of virgin materials, Brooks added.
Since launching the program in 1994, Ford has saved more than $11 million by using recycled materials, Brooks said.
``It's wrong to say that a recycled part can't be made as inexpensively as any other part,'' he said. ``We've proven that.''
The RP-1, standing for Raman Probe 1, could advance that philosophy to other companies, Brooks said. The device uses a process developed by Nobel Prize-winning Indian inventor C.V. Raman and harnesses into a resin-identifying machine by SpectraCode Inc., a scientific-instrument maker in West Lafayette, Ind.
Essentially, the Raman spectroscopy process allows an infrared laser to read a vibrating polymer bed, the network of springs holding the resin together, said SpectraCode President Ed Grant. When the laser strikes a plastic part, it produces an oscillating light field that changes colors as electrons move.
The laser can measure precisely the color frequency of the electromagnetic field, Grant said. A charged, coupled device, similar to a video camera's image detector, disperses the color spectrum, looking like the peaks and valleys on a hospital heart monitor, to the machine.
``Each polymer has a different set of frequencies,'' said Grant, a chemistry professor at Purdue University. ``The color spectrums act as a fingerprint for a certain type of polymer.''
After the specific material is identified, it can be sorted more easily, reground and sent to parts suppliers for reuse, Grant said.
Point. Shoot. Job finished.
By taking target practice at a scrapped plastic part, the machine's anodized aluminum wand can tell the difference between nylon 6 and 6/6, or between flame-retardant and traditional ABS. The wand also can detect the location of commingled material on one part.
In about a quarter second, the machine spouts a readout in large black letters: ``The plastic is polycarbonate.'' Other resin-identifying machines take anywhere from two to 10 seconds to identify resins, Brooks said.
Other infrared reading devices also require that a part be placed flush against the machine surface and remain motionless.
And they do not parse out the distinct resins in one family, Grant said.
``The industry has made compromises,'' Grant said. ``The inefficiencies in the overall process make the economics more difficult. Recycling can become successful when the obstacles are overcome.''
Those problems have caused recyclers to shy away from plastics, said Ray Pomerleau, director of plastics at Indianapolis-based recycling company Butler-MacDonald Inc. Recyclers frequently end up with incompatible and impure materials from one part, he said.
``When you look at plastics recycling as an industry, less than half a percent of that is for durable goods,'' Pomerleau said. ``We've had to deal with complex assemblies, with feedstreams that mingle plastics with metal and with plastics that shouldn't be mixed.''
Butler-MacDonald, one of the country's largest recyclers of plastics and metal, has helped SpectraCode develop the RP-1 by offering industry expertise and test facilities, Pomerleau said. The recycler also brought the technology to Visteon's attention.
So far, the results have been positive, Pomerleau said. But one drawback remains: In early versions of the RP-1, the laser burns through black material and obscures the reading, he said.
However, SpectraCode, working with the recycler, has solved that problem, Pomerleau said. New machines will undergo testing at Butler-MacDonald at the end of May, he said. Because the machine's changes must still be patented, Grant said he couldn't discuss the new process to detect black plastic.
Another potential problem could be price. The RP-1 costs $75,000, more than twice that of other laser reading devices. Still, Brooks said that a recycler could save about $2,000 a month, on average, due to the machine's speed, precision and less-cumbersome operation.
The device has been displayed to plastics automotive recyclers, including Grand Blanc, Mich.-based American Commodities Inc. and Shrewsbury, N.J.-based Wellman Inc. American Commodities is using an RP-1 machine on a trial basis.
Wellman, a major recycler of PET in bottles, has not decided whether to buy the RP-1, according to Tom Barnard, sales director of the engineering resins division. As fast and accurate as the device is, it is more a step forward than an industry panacea, he said.
``The [automotive] industry is still prehistoric in its recycling evolution,'' said Barnard, based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. ``What we'd like to do eventually is automate a line and pass [used] parts through a conveyor. We have to get where it is almost instantaneous, as it is in the bottle industry.''
Visteon would like to help drive that industry forward, Brooks said.
``If this helps knock down some of the walls, then we've done some good,'' he said.