Compounders and resin makers that supply increasingly complex materials for business equipment are facing pressures to lower their costs and deliver new formulations faster.
Requirements for the materials involve withstanding high temperatures, resisting chemicals, shielding electronic components, retarding flames and keeping contamination from migrating within a compact electronic product.
As life cycles continue to shorten, two new materials may help.
The fastest-growing materials segment — conductive polymers — shields electronic components in laptop computers, hand-held metering devices, computer-top video cameras and other products, said Scott Koberna, business programs manager with compounder RTP Co. in Winona, Minn.
In 2000, electromagnetic-interference and radio-frequency-interference shielding applications will account for about 150 million pounds of resin, or more than half of all conductive polymer sales in the United States, according to a report from Freedonia Group Inc. of Cleveland. Suppliers sold 115 million pounds of resin for EMI/RFI in 1995. Annual growth averages 5.5 percent.
Cleanliness can be an issue, particularly for ionic-content materials in molding data-storage components and handling devices, especially disk drives.
No industry standard exists, and Exton, Pa.-based LNP Engineering Plastics Inc. is hoping to create a material requirement, according to Bill Feldman, marketing manager in Carmel, Ind., for the compounder's business machines and electronics lines.
Changes in the read/write head and increases in disk-drive speeds create ``more potential for contamination [from] chloride or fluoride ions or sulfates,'' Feldman said in a telephone interview. ``The more you can keep the material clean, the longer life you will get out of the drive.''
LNP, which has sold an ultraclean product for more than three years, will roll out a complete line of low-ion compounds for data-storage systems at the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association's Diskcon USA 98 trade show, Sept. 22-25 in San Jose, Calif.
``The trend is now toward newer plastic materials,'' said Mark Bennick, RTP development engineer.
M.A. Hanna Co.'s Keith Van Kirk agreed, referring to a pair of ``new base materials introduced in the last couple years.'' Van Kirk is industry manager of business machines, communications and electronics in Norcross, Ga., for Cleveland-based Hanna's engineering materials unit.
New materials include Shell Chemical Co.'s aliphatic polyketone polymer Carilon and Dow Chemical Co.'s Questra-brand crystalline polymers, made with metallocene catalyst from polystyrene in a joint development with Idemitsu Petrochemical Ltd.
Other projections also see growth. A Freedonia Group study expects 4.4 percent annual U.S. growth for business equipment to more than 170 million pounds of engineered plastics by 2001. About 138 million pounds were used in 1996, principally for computer, printer and fax-machine housings.
International Data Corp. projects that U.S. shipments of cellular and personal-communication-system handsets will approach 46 million units in 2002 from 19 million sets in 1997, said Julie Rietman, IDC senior analyst of wireless and mobile communications in Austin, Texas.
Keith Waryas, a printer analyst for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, foresees explosive growth for network-suitable desktop color laser printers, an emerging niche. The U.S. market absorbed 65,500 units in 1997; he forecasts annual compounded growth of 56 percent through 2000. Prices in this niche dropped 26 percent last year and may fall another 14 percent this year.
Waryas said shipments of nonimpact printers, such as ink jets, jumped last year to 12.2 million units, a 17 percent increase over 1996. Shipments of laser printers rose 11 percent for the same years.
Describing a cost-reduction effort now under way, DSM's Karen Scammell said, ``A major [undisclosed] copier manufacturer needs to drive a billion dollars out of the whole chain — all purchased materials and services — in a mere two years.''
Scammell is industry manager for information technology equipment in Groton, Mass., for the DSM Engineering Plastics-Americas unit of Sittard, Netherlands-based DSM NV.
DSM's material sales for business machine applications have been growing 60 percent per year for the past four to five years, Scammell said, with gains coming ``at the expense of the metal industry and even thermosets.''
Shorter life cycles and the emerging digital era require materials suppliers to sample, test and deliver more quickly.
``We have to be able to turn around new formulations in three to six weeks vs. three to six months,'' Scammell said.
Printer, copier and scanner original equipment manufacturers ``want to eliminate as many manual operations as possible in assembly — get rid of sheet metal with welded attachments and go to a plastic material,'' she said. ``They recognize the need to get out of metal, and they use the opportunity to design a composite with tight dimensional'' characteristics and drive out costs at the beginning of the process.
DSM's Polymer Technology Center in Evansville, Ind., has adopted an applications approach, recognizing, ``The person who makes a hero of a program manager at an OEM gets the business,'' Scammell said.
Global supply is critical. DSM has the same capabilities in the United States, Europe and Asia and plans to set up operations in South America soon, she said, but would not elaborate.
DSM is a basic resin supplier of nylon 6 and 4/6, polycarbonate, polybutylene terephthalate and the copolyester elastomer Arnitel. OEMs are using more PBT and, for high-temperature gears, Stanyl nylon 4/6 filled with glass, carbon or polytetrafluoroethylene, Scammell said.
Molding color into a product rather than painting a part is gaining as a product-differentiation and cost-cutting technique, said Alan Burgess, manager of new product commercialization in Suwanee, Ga., for Hanna's color business unit.
A high-end product of yesteryear may have involved printing, painting and labeling, Burgess said. Now, OEMs want to eliminate secondary processes that are added costs, he said.
Hanna's FastMark color concentrate line permits laser-marking of a cellular telephone or pager keypad at a fraction of the cost of pad printing, Burgess said. The line allows end-of-production-cycle private labeling with customized logos, bar coding, sequential numbering and foreign languages, as needed, and makes old-style labels obsolete.
One molder had a 50 percent scrap-generation rate with such a label. ``Labor to remove the label was more costly than the material,'' Burgess said.
Geon Co.'s vinyl molding compound line has seen steady growth for desktop and desk-side computers, as OEMs use more plastics for cosmetic treatments, said Richard Krock, global sales manager for the custom molding compounds group of Avon Lake, Ohio-based Geon.
OEMs want to differentiate their computers and are adopting a signature styling look not possible with metal, he said.
Hydro-Geon, a joint venture of Geon and Hydro Polymers in Newton Aycliffe, England, is working with OEMs to qualify a newly formulated, high-heat ABS-PVC alloy for use in Europe for computer monitors, Krock said.
``Vinyl gives it durability and good feel,'' and the alloy offers the flow characteristics of ABS, he said.
Other compounding plants in Terre Haute, Ind., and a Singapore joint venture position Geon to provide global sourcing with regional manufacturing. The venture, with Singapore Polymer Corp. Pte. Ltd., is known as SPC-Geon.
The three sites can meet OEMs' requirements for precise color matches so assembly plants in different locales can exchange parts. Regional additives and pigments vary, so ``we monitor their consistency to make sure they match up,'' Krock said.
Geon's pigmented vinyl colors emulate a metal finish for small decorative logos and buttons on computers, which saves the cost of plating, he said.