What role will plastics play in the next century? Product designers are pondering the possibilities. Concepts on the drawing boards range from fancifully futuristic to downright functional — from a hand-held, plastic-encased electronic device that draws on a database of your personality to help you make sound decisions to a plastic-housed barbecue grill.
What's up, Doc?
In a world where the task of accumulating, organizing and analyzing data already too-often overwhelms us, the information keeps coming, as prolific and persistent as kudzu.
In the medical community, both patients and physicians are "being overwhelmed with far too much information," stemming from legislation, third-party payers and a whirlwind of medical knowledge, said Gianfranco Zaccai, president of Design Continuum Inc. in West Newton, Mass.
DCI has considered portable database-management devices for patients and physicians, as well as in-home diagnostic systems and patient-compliance monitoring tools.
"We envision — assuming appropriate safeguards for confidentiality — the opportunity to collect patient data from multiple sources in a central data warehouse," he said, and to process it using artificial intelligence.
Certain commercial facilities — like a health club or a bank ATM — would serve as data collection points that would monitor, analyze and transmit real-time physiological parameters to a central data bank, or warehouse.
In the physician's environment, the data could be uploaded into an organizing device with individual DNA and family history; home diagnostics; pharmaceutical, laboratory and subspecialty reports; and images.
Patients could perform self-diagnosis at home using disposable, hand-held devices, which would be manufactured in high volumes, without a need for sterilization, Zaccai said by phone.
"This will inevitably lead to the creation of ever-more user-friendly, smart, connected, highly accurate, low-cost plastic moldable devices," he said.
Beam me up, Scotty
Mark Kimbrough, principal of Design Edge Inc. in Austin, Texas, sees a day when such Web-based personal archives are commonplace — sort of like the Captain's Log in Star Trek, only better.
"Every individual will have a Web-based personal archive consisting of banking, medical, educational, and personal information," Kimbrough said.
What's more, people will interact with their personal archives through "a full array of body accessories that demand new polymers and new durability standards that we may not have today," he said.
Embedded computer hardware and sensors in eyewear, jewelry, under and outer clothing and shoes will let each person interface with a database via the Internet, using low-band radio waves.
"This network will enable you to interact through voice and eye sensors for identification, security and health needs," Kimbrough said. "We are just now beginning to outline technology jewelry."
But some designers want to go beyond even Internet-savvy earrings.
Make up your mind
Design Central's integrated decision filter pushes the personal-archive concept to the Outer Limits.
A person will use the firm's so-called IDF stone to help make objective decisions, said Timothy Friar, vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based Design Central Inc.
The IDF would verify a person's thumbprint for identity, listen to an oral question and verbalize a response in real time. The device, a distant kin to a worry stone, would draw on many wireless electronic databases and a thorough knowledge of the user's personality, aversion to risk, lifestyle and relationships.
"The size and weight will feel comfortable in a hand or reassuring in a pocket," Friar said. "The polymers will grow warm to the touch and have no raw edges, although the IDF will have variation in texture, firmness and responsiveness that create lasting interest for the owner."
Flash forward 50 years into the future, where consumers wanting to purchase an IDF would contact a retail processor to create a customized unit incorporating multiple personal preferences.
"The retail processor would create the plastic enclosure, including all customization, assemble the unit, program it and ship it to the consumer," Friar said.
Another vision is closer to reality, even if the concept is all wet. Metaphase Design Group Inc. is thinking about how to use plastics to improve diving gear.
"Plastics can help solve the five biggest needs in diving," said Bill Ungar, senior industrial designer at the Clayton, Mo., firm. Those needs are: improved peripheral vision, automatic buoyancy compensation, decreased weight, ease of mobility and streamlined instrumentation, Ungar said.
He sketched a diver clad, hypothetically, in a spherical polycarbonate helmet, prop-driven gloves, a nylon 6/12 buoyancy housing, a wound-fiberglass, doughnut-shaped air tank, a titanium-lined Neoprene suit and jet-powered fins made from ethylene vinyl acetate.
Future materials might make the concept more feasible, he noted. "Some materials may not have been invented yet, but all of the materials in this concept exist today," Ungar said. "It's just up to designers to make the most of them."
Make mine rare
Designers at ATD Corp. are making the most of bulk molding compounds in the structural elements of an innovative barbecue grill.
Atlanta-based Big Design designed the prototype grill for ATD of Norcross, Ga., using thermoset BMCs to replace traditional steel or die-cast offerings.
"The appearance goal was to create an outdoor cooking appliance that would relate with your patio furniture," said Steve Meister, Big Design vice president of marketing. "The use of BMC enabled us to specify unique colors, subtle textures and complex surfaces."
With nurturing, first editions of the grill might reach the retail market in 18-24 months.
The design confines cooking heat up to 700§ F within a five-layer aluminum-foil chamber with rolled edges, said Scott Ragland, ATD commercial business manager. Not more than 325§ F of heat reaches the outer surfaces of fiberglass-filled polyester.