SAN DIEGO — World-class computer, cellular-telephone and business-equipment manufacturers gave the plastics industry a hefty wish list in presentations at Engineering Thermoplastics 2000, held May 1-2 in San Diego. Compaq Computer Corp. aggressively pushes for the best materials for the central-processing-unit base, keyboard bezel and display enclosure in its products and likes to avoid painting the major enclosure parts.
"Compaq is looking to use the best materials to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses," Ronald DeLuga, a Compaq mechanical engineer, said in a interview at the conference.
The firm's portable advanced hardware technologies group includes research and development engineering talent and product designers. The aim is to produce thinner, lighter and cheaper laptops, DeLuga said.
"Some of our competitors use nylon, which requires painting," he said, "so they pay more for their parts, but they get different properties."
Compaq usually skips painting parts molded with amorphous polycarbonate resin or PC/ABS blends.
"If you have a processing problem with a part and can't get the cosmetics, then you paint," he said. "If you have PC or PC/ABS material, you'd better be working not to paint it." Within the group's product line, perhaps one or two major plastic parts out of 14-18 are painted now.
Compaq is recognized as the world's largest supplier of computing systems.
Mobile-phone requirements pose tough challenges for plastics processors, said Philip Parmenter, research team leader with Nokia Oyj's unit in Farnborough, England.
"Maybe it's time to stand up and rethink this whole scenario," Parmenter said. "The environment is changing."
Finland-based Nokia made 18 million phones last year, he said. Massive growth is expected to continue.
"Mobile phones will be the leading application platform for mobile users, overtaking laptops and other devices," he said. Product variety and decoration is increasing, while development, tooling and processing times are down.
Nokia needs world-class molders with mass-manufacturing capabilities and the ability to be consistent. "Differences are unbelievable" in parts that molders produce, Parmenter said.
Nokia wants molders capable of assembling components with readily available automated techniques. "Automation that takes longer than the mold tools to build is not good enough," he said.
Decoration is critical. "What can we use to differentiate our products to get ahead in the market?" he asked.
Pressures extend to toolmaking. "Modifying the current tool design and manufacturing process to suit changing requirements will soon not be sufficient," Parmenter said.
PC, ABS and PC/ABS blends are typical materials for molding cell phones. Third-generation formats including video capability and larger screens may pose material challenges, but it is "scary to design a product with a new material" for a 100 million production run, he said.
Nokia is regarded as the world's largest mobile-equipment manufacturer.
Hewlett-Packard Co. believes plastics can be positioned to add value to products.
"Product-design needs can be met with solutions from the plastics industry," said Thomas Roetker, who oversees development of manufacturing assembly, test and fabrication processes for two new products as project manager with H-P in San Diego.
H-P is creating a family of products, priced at $299-$799, depending on features and functions, and intended to have a longer-than-average life cycle of two to three years. There is an "opportunity for the plastics industry to help contribute to do this," Roetker said.
Both design support and responsiveness provide equal advantages to processors seeking to win H-P business, he said.
Processors and tooling and materials suppliers need to support H-P globally, and provide responsiveness locally. "Find ways to add value by supplying specialized parts such as gears, colors and decoration," Roetker said.
"We have to go to where the customers are." He added that H-P is "evaluating its supplier base on what it means to go everywhere" for design and manufacturing.
H-P is placing more emphasis on industrial design, and aims to reduce prices 10 percent per calendar quarter.
"Imagine what molders and material players will get as pressure," Roetker said. "We do ask [processors] for 5 percent per quarter sometimes. It is a tough environment."