Wood-fiber/plastic composites are poised for growth in injection molding, according to a speaker at a recent conference in Toronto.
The wood/plastic composite markets have been dominated by extrusion, but the segment represents new opportunities for molders without cannibalizing existing sales of molded plastics, according to Jim Morton, a principal in market research firm Principia Partners of Exton, Pa. Last year, North American wood/plastic composites sales reached $875 million and extrusion represented 97 percent of the total. Injection molding's 3 percent fraction mainly related to auxiliary components used with extruded wood/plastic decking.
Morton said injection molders should explore composites to allow them to grow beyond existing markets. Consumer products, housewares, lawn and garden, pallets and other goods made of natural materials could be replaced by the composites. Growth could focus on North America, offsetting conventional molding business migrating to Southeast Asia.
Principia has identified nearly 4 billlion pounds of replacement opportunities, of which nearly two-thirds would be replacement of current natural materials, he told delegates at the Progress in Woodfibre-Plastic Composites Conference 2004, held May 10-11 in Toronto.
Injection molding brings advantages to using composites. A wood appearance typically is achieved with only 20-30 percent fiber content. Mechanical performance characteristics such as stiffness and impact resistance are similar to conventional filled plastics. The low specific gravity of wood fiber provides a high stiffness-to-weight ratio compared with glass- or mineral-filled compounds.
Key to market development is a sufficient supply of the composites for molders.
``We need merchant compounders to step up to the plate,'' Morton said. Now most compounders in the sector are small, although there are signs the big players are getting involved.
Injection molding of the composites could grow to a $360 million market in 2008, representing 70 percent compounded annual growth over 2003, Morton predicted.
But smooth sailing is not guaranteed. Several technical issues need to be solved, such as thermal and moisture sensitivity, tool design and flow limitations, and product consistency. Commercial hurdles include low market awarenesss, a limited molder base and a shortage of application development.
In related news, Finnish extrusion technology firm Conenor Ltd. plans to have a commercial wood-fiber/plastic composite extrusion system available in the fall.
Conenor Managing Director and partner Markku Vilkki said the one-machine setup includes components to grind the wood fiber, dry it, mix it with polymer and extrude it. The extruder will be based on the company's Conex conical extruder technology, he said. Since the grinder is included in the machine, it allows processors to cut costs, according to Vilkki.
Conenor of Lahti, Finland, has been developing plastic pipe and cable coating extruders since 1995.
In 2000 it began to work on wood/plastic composites extrusion. Vilkki said Conenor will sell licenses for the technology, but the machinery will be built by Maillefer SA of Ecublens, Switzerland.
He said his firm still is evaluating how to market the technology in North America.