While few squarely agree on where the industry will be in the next 100 years, faculty members at the nation's top polymer and plastics programs have some ideas. For whatever the future holds for this industry, those educators most likely will be at the forefront, researching and experimenting with technologies and applications.
A Plastics News survey of top polymer educators yielded a variety of predictions, from advances in agricultural and synthetic polymers to alternative forums of education such as virtual campuses and company-sponsored institutions for on-the-job education.
Where the majority agree is that for plastics to remain viable in the United States, the industry must reach potential students, technical workers and engineers as early as possible.
Materials have come a long way in the past 50 years, said Lou Gennaro, program chair of manufacturing engineering technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Problems with strength-to-weight ratio that once precluded various applications today are performed with ease, he said.
He expects advances that will allow even more innovative uses.
"As reinforced plastics, composites and other man-made materials with great strength-to-weight ratios and superior mechanical and physical properties are developed and improved, we will see new technology being applied in the aircraft, ship-building, automotive, electronic, construction and other manufacturing industries," Gennaro said.
"There is no foreseeable end to the application of man-made materials in manufacturing."
The fusing of inorganic elements finally should help improve plastics' strength, durability and other characteristics, said Frank Feher, professor and vice chair of the chemistry department at the University of California-Irvine.
"Plastics containing large amounts of inorganic substances should become common over the next 50-100 years as synthetic chemists master the chemistry of these elements to the same degree they have mastered the chemistry of carbon-based compounds," Feher said.
"Materials like sand and clay are particularly attractive as feedstocks because of their low cost and ready availability, and it is also becoming clear that inorganic substances provide unique ways to improve the durability and performance of plastics while reducing their flammability."
As a result, Feher said, the consumer will see "more plastic available, better plastic available, better tools for making things from plastics and lower overall costs."
Agricultural raw materials will see their day too, some educators predict. Breakthroughs should benefit a new player that previously had little stake in the plastics arena — American farmers, said Daniel Scola, a professor with the University of Connecticut's polymer program at the Institute of Materials Science in Storrs, Conn.
Frank Kelley, dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron in Ohio, also projects the significant presence of "green" manufacturing in the industry.
"There will be an increase in the use of biomass or renewable resources as feedstocks for plastics production," he said. "My own view is that this country and the world have ample reserves of coal to supply more economical sources of monomers than might be available from biomass for several centuries to come."
Natural-materials innovations could save energy in the long run, according to Richard J. Farris, distinguished professor and head of the Polymer Science and Engineering department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
"I imagine that we will have found ways to create plastic materials economically from natural products, thereby reducing our dependency on oil," Farris wrote. "We will use polymeric materials in energy conversion, using the wonderful thermodynamic properties of these materials to behave similar to gasses.
"As energy costs become higher and specialty polymers become available, this old concept will reach its time."
With such polymers, Farris foresees applications from artificial organs to drug delivery systems.
However, Gennaro and Christopher Macosko, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, warn that the limitless possibilities for materials innovations probably won't lessen their impact on the environment.
Macosko said resin producers and processors will have to promote recycling from another angle for it to be taken seriously in the industry.
"We as an industry have to advocate recycling as energy," he said during a telephone interview. "Recycling the same polymer probably is not going to grow as much."
Another facet of the industry due for an upgrade is processing technology, according to Nick Schott, professor and chair of the Plastics Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
"One of the concerns I've had in the United States is our equipment is too old," Schott said by phone. "My feeling is the manufacturers may be at a severe disadvantage worldwide if they don't keep the latest equipment.
"A 10-year-old machine is going to produce at only half the production capability as a brand-new machine. This is going to be a major driving force to get the latest equipment if we truly want to compete worldwide."
Schott praised improvements in the time needed to build prototype and production tooling —from a 16-week period in the 1980s to four to six weeks today. Companies that can get to the market fastest typically capture 80 percent of the market share, but with so much global competition, Schott said, "it doesn't pay to come in second.
"The U.S. has to be very nimble because it's a worldwide market," he said. "There is a devolution of manufacturing from the United States to Third World countries where manufacturing costs are lower.
"There's always going to be a market for ... high-tech in the United States, but that doesn't mean you're always going to keep that market."
Karen Proctor, a professor of packaging science at RIT, and Anne Mayes, a professor in materials science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, both foresee advances in using pressure in processing techniques.
"I envision new materials that are processed primarily through the application of pressure vs. temperature in order to save energy and reduce degradation during processing," Mayes said. "Such materials could be recycled many times without substantial loss of product quality.
"We've been developing materials like this at MIT."
Polypropylene use should increase over polystyrene, especially for thermoformed containers, Proctor said.
So who's going to teach the processors and engineers how to master the materials and processes of the future? And how will it be taught?
On the job, is what most educators predict. Convenience and quickness will be key when it comes to education.
"Polymer education, as well as all higher education and training, will be available in the workplace — at times convenient to the learners," Kelley said.
"Polymer education will be challenged to meet the growing complexities of advances in the computational and data-management fields, but will still value the requirement to challenge students to become self-learners and creative individuals.
"There will be a greater need for those individuals who are well-educated in polymer materials and processing in the future," Kelley said.
More polymer education should be integrated into materials-engineering programs, Farris said.
"Polymeric materials will become a larger part of the materials science and engineering teaching," he said. "Currently, many in materials science seem to exclude polymeric materials — totally favoring metallurgy and ceramics."
However, Feher of UC-Irvine said he thinks those changes in polymer education may yield graduates who specialize in a particular area rather than a general field.
"The average person will learn and know less about polymers, but there will be a small core of people with highly specialized skills that will move the field forward," he said.
"And despite efforts by U.S. leaders, an increasing fraction of the top talent in these fields will come from abroad."