Fancy a plastic and leopard-skin cell-phone case to match your party outfit? How about an enclosure featuring molded-in leather, suede or denim for your handheld personal digital assistant?
Inclosia Solutions is betting that style-conscious consumers will pay for such customization of their ever-more-portable data and telecommunication devices.
But fashion isn't the only feature driving Inclosia, a 2-year-old business unit of Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. Dow formed the unit to develop more-durable, functional enclosures for handheld electronics, and struck an alliance with injection molder Eimo Americas Inc. to serve as Inclosia's manufacturing arm. Ruggedness as well as water and dust resistance are growing in importance as portable electronic devices find their way into harsher outdoor and industrial environments, according to Inclosia business manager Tom Tarnowski.
One of Inclosia's first projects began in 2001 when it worked with the then-Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston to develop a rugged case for Compaq's iPAQ Pocket PC handheld computer. The result was a black polycarbonate enclosure overmolded with a red, aggressively ribbed, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer outer shell that provided shock-absorption qualities and a soft-touch feel. The case also features a clear, extruded sheet of TPU membrane underneath the hard cover that protects the electronics from water while still allowing the user to access the iPAQ's touch screen beneath it.
Hewlett-Packard Co., which since has acquired Compaq, now sells the case alone for $129.99, and claims good market acceptance, especially among industrial customers whose employees use handheld computers in warehouses and in the field.
Keith Sauer, a mechanical engineer for HP's Smart Handhelds unit, said the application, both from the industrial design and mechanical perspectives, ``was about as complicated as you can get with 3-D surfaces. There's really not a flat surface on it.'' In an Aug. 1 telephone interview, Sauer praised the Inclosia-Eimo alliance for its ``great understanding of the overmolding process'' and said the program benefited from working with Eimo's ``top-notch toolmaker in Hong Kong.''
Inclosia then extended its efforts with Eimo to develop EXO overmolding, the patent-pending process that incorporates fabric into the enclosure. This spring computer accessories supplier Targus Inc. released the first such commercial product made with the process, a so-called ``light rugged'' case also made to hold HP's iPAQs. Known as the HP1000 Professional PDA accessory case, it is a $49.99 black polycarbonate/ABS enclosure with a hinged cover featuring a textured, synthetic black leather front panel with a molded-in HP logo.
Inclosia and Vicksburg, Mich.-based Eimo Americas have more EXO-overmolded products in the pipeline. Tarnowski said ``several mainstream products will be coming into production later this year.'' Applications could include laptop and tablet-style computers, MP3 players - basically any information technology equipment that needs to combine ruggedness with aesthetics.
The Dow unit claims traditional processes that combine layers of fabric and plastic often stretch, tear or crush the fabric. And, if the fabric extends inside the housing, there is a potential for short-circuiting the electronic components, and making the device noncompliant with existing standards.
Eimo - which produces the tooling for this project at its facilities in Vicksburg and Hong Kong - uses a two-step molding process to make products using the EXO system, said Bill Stewart, vice president of development and innovation for Eimo Americas, which is owned by Finland's Eimo Oyj. Stewart, who worked for nearly two decades at Triple S Plastics Inc. before Eimo acquired it in 2001, said his firm uses standard coinjection molding equipment to first mold the base enclosure structure. The second step permanently laminates or bonds fabric to the base and seals the edges to prevent fraying or peeling.
Tarnowski called the EXO process ``insert, two-shot molding,'' and explained that it starts with creation of a fabric blank or preform, which then is reinforced with a laminated film and adhesive backing, before being loaded, either robotically or manually, into a standard coinjection press.
A former Dow Automotive official, Tarnowski said the automotive industry has been overmolding fabric for years. But those processes, mostly used to make bigger parts that allow for secondary operations to do post-molding cleanup, did not meet the strict, high-speed demands of the telecommunications industry. Others resin makers, meanwhile, are pursuing similarly tactile end results, but for different purposes and by different means. As part of its Fantasia line, Bayer Polymers, for example, offers a film-insert molding technology called Faria that can yield a thermoplastic part with a finish that looks and feels like fabric or denim.
Inclosia touts the EXO technology as ``a mass-production process that meets the cost, quality, durability and volume requirements critical for the production of electronic devices.'' It cites as one of the technology's time- and cost-saving advantages the fact that one mold can be used for many different fabrics and materials, usually without the need to retool between covering changes.
Tarnowski said Dow created this targeted business unit after hearing from designers who wanted new tools to create high-volume, low-cost, portable-electronics enclosures that offered product differentiation and strong brand language. Hence, Inclosia's tag line is ``We get you noticed.''
``The options for producing injection molded housings were great, but the decoration options were limited,'' he said. Too often, the actual housing ``didn't communicate the same level of value'' as did the owner's leather briefcase or shoes, for example.
Phillip Prestigomo, industrial design manager at HP's iPAQ Handheld Design Center in Houston, said adding fabric to the enclosure is just ``one more element, one more texture, one more secure point for the user ... that can only improve the experience.''
Sauer added that since rugged usually implies ``industrial,'' the EXO process ``allows you to take the ruggedness out of the warehouse and put it into the boardroom, or out to the ballgame, or [be] stylish enough to take it out to the martini bar.''
As the handheld-computer market matures, it will start to catch up with the cell-phone industry, which has made big business of customizing units by offering interchangeable, colored or branded faceplates. While it is in the early days for such customization in the handhelds sector, Prestigomo said the HP1000 case ``is the first step in that direction.'' But he acknowledges that much more market research is needed to determine user interests and potential volume.
Tarnowski, meanwhile, claims another advantage to the EXO system is that it is not resin-specific. So far, Eimo is running mostly ABS, polycarbonate, and PC/ABS blends with the process, but there is no reason not to use other materials, including non-Dow materials and even thermosets, he noted.
While Inclosia benefits from its connection to Dow, the business unit has its own design and engineering centers in Midland and in Terneuzen, the Netherlands, and is planning a third such facility in Asia, possibly Shanghai, China. Inclosia, either directly or via its network of suppliers, can do design and engineering work, prototyping, testing, tooling, manufacturing, assembly and even trends research related to future electronic devices. It also works closely with, but separately from, Dow's color centers in Midland and Terneuzen, Tarnowski said.
Inclosia Solutions is not looking to license the EXO technology, he said, adding, ``We sell parts.''