On the surface, thermoforming is playing catch-up, and large suppliers like GE Plastics are trying to help.
For the manufacture of large parts, the need for an attractive, weather-resistant surface finish has led processors in the past to shy away from thermoforming, said Greg Adams, general manager of global marketing for Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics. Compared with injection molding, fiberglass layup and the compression molding of sheet molding compound, thermoforming has lagged behind, he said.
GE is one of several companies challenging that perception. The company is launching several new, thermoformable resins, marked by a seemingly omnipotent presence at the Society of Plastics Engineers' 2003 Thermoforming Conference, held Sept. 13-16 in Cincinnati.
The sprawling GE Plastics booth, in the center of the show floor, was one of the most elaborate at the conference. It featured a thermoformed kayak, a camouflage-decked utility car, a John Deere tractor, and a shower stall.
Off to one side was another product that attracted gawkers like barnacles to a buoy: a Four Winns pleasure boat with a hull made of weatherable, thermoformed sheet. The hull was composed of several updated GE materials.
Mammoth-sized GE wants to give thermoformers a confidence boost for large parts, Adams said. It was whispered that the company spent more than $60,000 on its conference exhibit.
GE wants to be at the start of what it thinks will be tremendous growth in heavy-gauge thermoforming, Adams said. In fact, GE wants to help start that fire.
``The next five years are going to be very big in this industry for application development,'' Adams said. ``And large parts clearly are going to drive that growth with the right base methods and materials. We want to create some of that head wind.''
In a marketing-savvy news release for one of its new materials, GE calls one of its new thermoformable resins ``game-changing.'' In fact, what really could change the game for thermoforming is the elimination of paint while achieving a refined, Class A surface finish.
Setting up a paint line at a large manufacturing plant, especially in the automotive world, can cost upwards of $400 million Adams said. Injection molding has tackled that issue - most notably on the use of in-mold-decorated bumper fascias used for several years on DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s Dodge Neons made in Belvidere, Ill.
Those use DuPont's Surlyn nylon. And, notably, DuPont also introduced a new family of thermoformable resins at the SPE show. Achieving good color match without paint is a DuPont priority, said Tzuo-Li Lee, development programs manager for DuPont Engineering Polymers in Wilmington, Del.
``We look at thermoforming at about a $6 billion business worldwide,'' Lee said at the show. ``For us, we're exploring what we think could be a lot of opportunities. Decorated parts are a major part of that.''
At DuPont, the thermoforming show was a springboard for its Delrin acetal decorating materials, providing a metallic-looking finish with the necessary scratch resistance, Lee said. Those, and new nylon grades, are so new that only prototypes were on display at the DuPont booth.
GE had both large parts on the market to show and a host of new resins to introduce. The company's new line of thermoformable resins included a more-weatherable Geloy ASA resin and new Noryl PPX blend that improves surface finish.
And on the development list at GE is a higher-gloss Lexan SLX resin that can withstand temperature extremes, as well as new Lexan film for in-mold applications.
For all of that, the message is the same. Thermoformers have been needlessly lagging for too long in rugged outdoor applications, especially where good color and crispness matter, said Thomas Hammoor, general manager of GE's engineered styrenic resins business in Washington, W.Va.
``For large parts, thermoforming should not be behind the wheel compared to other processes,'' Hammoor said. ``It doesn't have to be. New uses and materials will make the difference.''
Among the uses that GE is touting for thermoforming are outdoor siding for building and construction, rooftop vehicle panels for ski equipment, door panels on heavy trucks and boat housings.
Scratch resistance and gloss are keys, Adams said. And attacking other processes would not be difficult. Due to less-expensive tooling, thermoforming costs less than injection molding, he said. Meanwhile SMC and fiberglass both have Achilles heels, he said - SMC in the need to paint and fiberglass in the messiness of the process.
Yet, that future is not altogether secured, according to others at the show. Acrylics already have established a toehold in the nonpaint, large-parts market, said a spokesman for Aristech Acrylics LLC of Florence, Ky., at the show. Even then, the automotive market - representing arguably the big prize for thermoformed plastics - is a tough hill to climb, he said.
``The OEMs are very conservative and don't like change,'' he said. ``Even if [decorated parts] are used, something has to be displaced.''
But there is hope for displacement, even among some custom sheet extruders. Spartech Corp., a manufacturer of extruded sheet and roll stock, had launched soft-touch thermoformable sheets that provide a better surface feel.
While heavy-gauge thermoforming has struggled a bit with the economic downturn, the tide could be turning, said Howard Kenney, director of marketing for Clayton, Mo.-based Spartech.
``The [thermoforming sector] has become more appearance-driven,'' Kenney said at the show. ``We expect to see some product transformation and subtle shifts in uses. That will be ongoing.''