Designers making their first circuit past entries in the Industrial Designers Society of America/Plastics News Design Award could take in items with curves and colors. There were stylish motorcycles and high-tech mouse cages.
But it all came down to substance, the three IDSA judges said, as they made Buckhorn Inc.'s EverKote wood-plastic composite this year's winner.
``When I look at it, it's a combination of two well-understood things, but in combination, they create something else,'' said Scott A. Lutz, project manager for Spartan Electronics in DeLeon Springs, Fla.
``The sum of the parts is definitely greater than the whole,'' independent designer Paul McGroary said at the 2005 Structural Plastics Conference, held March 20-23 in Lake Buena Vista.
EverKote, designed in-house by Buckhorn's Mike Johnson, launched in 2004 with a core of engineered wood encapsulated by polypropylene through a low-pressure structural foam process. The parts are available in a variety of ultraviolet-light-resistant colors.
Unlike other wood-plastic composites, the material is intended for use in vertical structural posts. In its first commercial product, the material is used in four support beams for a children's fort area in an upscale swing set made by Collingwood, Ontario-based Backyard Products Ltd., a now-defunct division of Hedstrom Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and eventually shut down last fall.
The product looks so simple, it may seem an unlikely winner of a design award.
``When I did my first survey [of competing products], it was on my list, but it wasn't the foremost,'' said R. Sean HÃ¤gen, president of Orlando, Fla.-based BlackHÃ¤gen Design.
Still, the designers said EverKote stood out in the long run because it has so much potential.
``Industrial design is not just about aesthetics,'' Lutz said. ``We're inherently curious in materials and processing as well.''
The product got its launch in response to fears that consumers could turn away from traditional pressure-treated lumber, worried about arsenic and other chemicals in the material, said Johnson, custom sales manager for Milford, Ohio-based Buckhorn.
Creating the armored wood was not simply a matter of coating available lumber with plastic. Use a regular post, and the moisture level is so high it can warp during processing or degrade once inside the plastic jacket.
``You can't get the moisture level down enough with natural wood,'' Johnson said.
The answer to the core was a triple layer of an engineered wood. Once that was in hand, Johnson's team had to find a way to process the plastics without the material shrinking too much, or cracking around the wood.
``You look at it and it doesn't seem like much, but it's awfully hard to bond and mold around wood,'' said Jack Avery, principal of Salt Lake City-based Avery Plastics Consulting and a veteran of the structural plastics design competitions.
The judges noted they would like to see better molded-in connections for the coated timber that would open it up to more uses. Johnson said Buckhorn already has one prototype with a 90-degree angle that conceivably could lead to fences, swing sets or other structures with a quick-connect system that could eliminate extensive hand labor.
The most intriguing thing about EverKote, the judges said, is its potential for use in decking, fences and a variety of outdoor structures.
``It seems wide open in terms of what you can do with it,'' HÃ¤gen said.
Buckhorn already is in talks for a variety of future uses. With its original client, playground maker Backyard Products, now out of business, the product is attracting interest from other makers of such products.
EverKote is ``premium priced,'' so while it may not go into a wide variety of consumer products, the company is hearing about potential long-term uses in outdoor public spaces.
There are talks about putting it in marinas, where it would stand up to moisture, and for structures in federal parks. One company is considering it for use in a skateboarding park, where the environment and rough wear by riders can wear down standard wooden systems.
The judges noted other entries that impressed them.
A wireless alarm system for construction sites, created by tool producer DeWalt Industrial Tool Co. and molder Minco Group, was intriguing, they said. Meanwhile, a stacked, space-saving, laboratory mouse cage system called OptiMice, created by Carter Design of Denver, also changed the image of research animal housing. Mack Molding Co. molded the product for Animal Care Systems of Littleton, Colo. They also praised a Mercury Marine fuel-pump module that saved weight and money by converting to plastic from metal.