In 1900, no one could have accurately predicted the prominent position that the plastics industry would command at the end of the 20th century. That's because at the dawn of the century, the plastics industry really didn't exist.
In the mid-1800s, some companies used crude plunger-type presses to form shellac and gutta-percha into combs, jewelry and novelties. But it wasn't until after the turn of the century — in 1907 — that chemist Leo Baekeland invented the first man-made material, dubbed Bakelite.
Housewares always have been a big plastics market. Early on, the industry also got a boost from the growing radio industry, and from the nascent automotive business. DuPont's invention of nylon captured the public's imagination, and World War II encouraged the rapid development and spread of advances in both materials and processing.
When William Willert designed the reciprocating-screw injection molding press in 1952, the efficiency of the new process meant plastics truly had arrived.
Yes, the 20th century saw the birth of the plastics industry. But in this special report, we're taking a look at what's in store in plastics' second century.
We decided to look forward, instead of backward, in part because we concentrated on industry history in the March 1999 special report we prepared for Plastics News' 10th anniversary.
Looking into the industry's future isn't easy. Most of the sources we talk to every day concentrate on planning for the next two or three years — and sad to say, sometimes just the next quarter. It's difficult to find processors, machinery executives and material suppliers who have a firm grasp of where the industry is headed 20 or 30 years from now, let alone visionaries who are planning for that future.
Maybe that's for the best. Companies that plan for the next 100 years frequently either end up planning for the wrong future, or end up being remembered for being ahead of their time.
There's a subtle but important difference between planning for the future and being prepared for it. This report is designed to help processors prepare. Stop and think about how processors will be affected by growing globalization, dwindling oil reserves, new processing technologies, or the demise of plastics applications that appear to be thriving today.
We may know what problems today's engineers, scientists and inventors are working on solving. But we can't predict which of their solutions will be successful, or how they'll change the industry.
To a large extent, the future is affected by people like Baekeland and Willert in ways that no one can predict.