Transportation design students at Detroit's College for Creative Studies spend a year coming up with their dream car.
They create it from the wheels up, sculpting models, shaping its curves, and even consider potential buyers - all to put their capabilities to the test and show prospective bosses what they know about design.
For the past five years, some of those students also have come to know more about plastics.
The American Plastics Council of Arlington, Va., has sponsored the class three times since 2000. It has brought molders and resin suppliers into the classroom to provide information about everything from structural capabilities to in-mold decorating.
The students also have visited injection molding facilities. They have seen sheet molding compound in action and gained more knowledge on how to make everything from interior trim to entire body panels. It is in-depth information future car designers might otherwise miss.
``Unless they get an internship or work as an employee in the plastics business, they're probably not going to get a lot of this information,'' said Bryon Fitzpatrick, chair of the college's transportation design/industrial design department. ``[The plastics industry] is trying to influence future design.''
And the APC program is not alone in reaching out.
DuPont Co. created a display called ``Fusion'' that allows designers to touch, feel and play with different resins, textiles and paint finishes created by the Wilmington, Del.-based firm.
Eastman Chemical Co., along with designer Brewery Ltd. and compounder Rotuba Extruders Inc., last year began offering samples of its cellulosic plastics in pebble form to designers, encouraging them to play with the wood-based resin.
BASF Corp. of Florham Park, N.J., co-sponsored this year's annual Industrial Designers Society of America meeting in Washington and boosted its online support to provide product developers with more information on material selection.
``There is a huge opportunity for material suppliers to work with the industrial design community in particular, to understand what their needs are and to try and address them,'' said Mark Minnichelli, director of commercial technology for BASF Engineering Plastics.
BASF revamped its Web site at plasticsportal.com so that designers can plug in material requirements - such as structural integrity or soft touch - and receive back a list of potential matches. Using the site they also can get an early read on material costs and whether they would need multiple gates to produce a large part.
Winona, Minn.-based compounder RTP Co. created a ``design box'' that allows designers to learn more about aspects of materials.
At the annual IDSA conference, ExxonMobil Chemical Co.'s Advanced Elastomers Systems unit sponsored an Internet cafe that gave attendees a chance to check e-mail and see samples of the firm's Santoprene thermoplastic elastomer. ExxonMobil even had wristbands made of the TPE for designers to take home.
Big companies are not the only ones tapping into the design community. The Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division sponsored a booth, its representatives ready with parts and products showing off the processing method's capabilities. Most designers are familiar with injection molding, but know very little about thermoforming said Richard Freeman, president of West Coast thermoformer Freetech Plastics Inc.
While the plastics industry did not ignore designers in the past, it was geared more toward engineers, said Gaylon White, director of design industry programs and global promotions for Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman. Companies that historically focused on molders spent more time emphasizing chemical structures, melt-flow statistics and other numbers that told processors how to handle the resins rather than how the end product would look or feel.
Companies are not losing that aspect, but instead are adding to it through the outreach programs.
When Eastman wanted to reposition its cellulosic resins last year, it teamed with designers to come up with a product that they could appreciate. The palm-sized ``pebble'' samples are made to encourage designers to play with the plastic and become familiar with it - with the idea being that as they learn to appreciate the feel of it, they will incorporate it in their consumer products.
``The industry has done so much to confuse people,'' Eastman's White said. ``We've got all sorts of brand names and letters and numbers, and numbers after the letters in our products, that we've turned the product into a license plate. What we wanted to do is make something that became so complex simple again.''
Eastman is creating an iconic designer symbol for its copolyester resins with the intent of getting those samples into designers' hands as well.
The outreach programs come as industrial design gains more emphasis in product development. Firms like Procter & Gamble Co. are finding new sales by packaging their cleaning solutions in new ways. Retailer Target has won raves for the design emphasis of its household products while retailers, designers and molders alike talk about how New York consumer products manufacturer Oxo International Ltd. revolutionized simple household appliances by redesigning them.
``You see it in consumer electronics, you see it in housewares and the consumer sees it,'' said Stanley Rayford, marketing manager of design for DuPont Engineering Polymers. ``Everyone sees it as a way to try and compete and stay away from commoditization.''
DuPont first created Fusion as a way to show off its wide range of materials to the auto industry, but the increasing emphasis on design throughout the business world has prompted the company to show it to a variety of end users. The show focuses on ways companies can use materials to emphasize a natural look or feel or stress a high-technology influence.
``More and more of my time is being done with design departments of large corporations,'' said Mark Schuchardt, design leader for DuPont Engineering Polymers. ``We're all saying that here's a different way of looking at materials. There's much more openness. Not only are they inviting you in, but they want you to help them try to express things in ways that are meaningful to them.''
Schuchardt said he sees himself as filling a vital middle ground between the pure aesthetics of design and the chemistry of resins - and interpreting the needs of each group to the other.
``[Designers] are looking for the information we have, but we've presented it in the wrong format frequently,'' he said.