(March 15, 2004) — Since 1989, communist governments have fallen, the Internet has risen and the Earth has spun on its axis more than 5,000 times.
But new products have not always made the same long-jump leaps. A review of some sizzling product-development headlines in 1989, when Plastics News was begat by Crain Communications Inc., shows that some things really have not changed a heck of a lot.
I mean, look at what the plastics industry was talking about in 1989:
* The automotive industry was considering advances in composites for body panels and hoped to have an all-plastic vehicle on the road by 2000.
* Bag and film makers were looking at new degradable materials so a grocery sack would not have to sit in a landfill until the year 2525.
* The industry was hunting like a bloodhound for new recycling uses. The idea that recycled PET could be used for egg cartons was trumpeted by our favorite weekly newspaper.
* Plastic resins were being considered for building materials, artificial hips and the wheels of cars.
Looking at that list, you could argue that progress has been a relatively tame tabby, not the lion some say has changed the world in our faster-paced, so-called information age.
Let's see — we're still waiting for that all-plastic car, we haven't yet reached the stage where every bag biodegrades and recycling applications have skidded in and out of vogue.
But before you go running to your Whole Earth Society meeting, other plastic products, too numerous to name, have been accepted with a stamp of approval by an adoring public.
Plastics has held dominion over the whole computer revolution, the move to new bottles, the boom in medical devices, the consumer products on your neighborhood grocery or retail aisles, to name a few.
It's axiomatic to say that some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Yet, more than ever we are surrounded by plastics, much of which was not even conceived by designers back in '89.
Yes, we are still chewing over the same issues (see above). But the revolution of plastics as a trendy codependent with modern society has reached mythic levels. Just put on those fluorescent-orange shades, take out your transparent blue cellular phone and slip that compact disc into your MP3 player. Isn't plastic fantastic?
There have been some products that have crashed and burned. In 1989, designers were talking of earrings made of shape-memory plastic that returned to their original dimensions. And they were preparing for the new plastic postage stamp that could be purchased from an automated teller machine.
Hey, nobody's perfect. In 1989, they also were discussing the advent of plastic jewel boxes for CDs and a newfangled financial device called an ATM card. Sometimes you hit home runs; sometimes you whiff.
The design world has changed in many more ways than just in products. Look at how design now is done, not just the end result. It's come a long way, baby — from drafting boards to computer screens, from flat drawings to three-dimensional models, from prototypes handcrafted from clay or fiberboard to those real-material parts now transmitted from a laser printer or a computer touch screen.
Design tools have moved a quantum leap forward. And so has efficiency. When a design firm in India can work overnight with a company here and help produce a product in half the time, that's progress. When rapid tooling can move a product from the drawing board to actual parts in a week, that's progress taking a sip of Jolt soda.
Still, it's not just information that is leading to better plastic designs, and while tools make the work faster and more comfortable, it takes imagination, ingenuity and sweat equity to build a product.
The great Albert Einstein — in his time, a designer of quantum physics — once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It would do a designer disservice to think otherwise, even though the information-processing skills are great. No question about that.
But historian David McCullough once said that if information were learning, you'd be educated by memorizing the World Almanac. And you'd be weird, too, he said.
Yet, in a virtual world, those tools can help the imagination. In Detroit-area design studios, you can get behind the wheel of a car on a virtual highway and test the cockpit controls.
In packaging, you can design a contoured PET bottle on a computer screen that looks like you could drink from it.
The only fly in the ointment in today's computer-literate world is a turning of the back on product development. Product development has been of diminishing importance to some processors, especially publicly traded ones. When shareholders are screaming for better returns on their investment, research and development become too-easy whipping boys for cost cutting.
That's unfortunate, and some companies are questioning the wisdom of that approach. After all, you need products to compete, and you need designers to come up with the products. Any fourth-grade social studies student could tell you that.
Where do the next 15 years take us? The computer tools are bound to get even better, with new versions of software besting the old every year. And some eye-popping new product that we don't have any clue about today is bound to capture the popular imagination. Somewhere in a design studio somewhere in the world, that idea might be hatching right now.
Maybe they'll come up with a brilliant idea for an all-plastic postage stamp.
Pryweller is an Akron-based senior reporter for Plastics News.