Terry and Nancy Kieffer, who farm soybeans on 200 Iowa acres, found a way to use soy- and corn-derived resin in making an air scoop for a harvester at their thermoforming and composite molding firms.
Using a vacuum-bag-type process, they affix a 0.09-inch-thick composite skin of a renewable resin and 50 percent fiber reinforcement to a thermoformed thermoplastic sheet that also measures 0.09 inch thick.
Ashland Inc.'s specialty chemical division supplies the modified organic Envirez 1807 unsaturated polyester resin.
The backing is created without using a mold.
An 8-foot-by-10-foot double-ended vacuum forming machine makes the product using Spartech Plastics' WeatherPro G sheet, which consists of an ABS substrate, an acrylic styrene acrylonitrile layer and a thin acrylic cap.
The TEC process - for Tooless Engineered Composites - has a patent pending.
The Kieffers' Plastics Unlimited Inc. of Preston, Iowa, and Fabri-Glass Composites Inc. of Moline, Ill., found interest from a major equipment manufacturer for the initial agricultural application.
The 65-pound air scoop - light on a per-square-foot basis - is a ``low-volume option for a combine, and we may use a couple of thousand units over two years,'' said Jay Olson, plastics technology manager with Deere & Co. materials engineering in Moline. ``Those kinds of parts cost in the $100-$400 range.''
``We are always interested in advanced bio-based materials ... but use of soybeans was not the primary driver'' in producing the air scoop with Plastics Unlimited's TEC process, Olson said.
For small volumes of large, styled parts, Deere has been looking for materials that cost less than sheet metal, sheet molding compounds or reaction injection molded resins, Olson said.
``Now with oil going up in price, it makes economic sense'' to use soy-based resin.
The air scoop, which fits on the back of a combine that may harvest soybeans and other products, was honored by Plastics Unlimited's peers.
The air scoop received awards Sept. 26 in Milwaukee from the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division and Sept. 30 in Columbus, Ohio, from the American Composites Manufacturers Association.
Typically, SPE members focus on thermoplastics and ACMA firms on thermosets.
``Both worlds like the part because it is innovative,'' said Russ Fisher, president of Fisher Composite Technologies LLC, a consultancy headquartered in Brookfield, Wis.
Fisher works with the Kieffers on composite-related projects and deals with the United Soybean Board in Chesterfield, Mo., in developing composite soy resins for other companies.
``This air scoop needed to withstand the outside elements of farming in all kinds of environments,'' Fisher said.
``The outside skin does not need painting and withstands ultraviolet attacks on gloss and color. The part needs no additional reinforcement other than the composite backing [and] has excellent impact resistance,'' he added.
The air scoop has a tensile modulus of 1.2 million pounds per square inch and a notched Izod impact strength of 18 foot-pounds per inch.
``We knew it would work because it was already working in other fields,'' Terry Kieffer said by telephone. ``It was just a matter of perfecting it.''
The Kieffers established Plastics Unlimited in 1993 and acquired Fabri-Glass Inc., now operating as Fabri-Glass Composites, in July 2004. About 50 miles separate the plants.
Plastics Unlimited employs 35 and, for the fiscal year ended June 1, had sales of $3.5 million, including $3.1 million from thermoforming jobs. Terry Kieffer is president.
Fabri-Glass, formed in 1954, specializes in vacuum bag compression molding of fiberglass-reinforced plastics.
The firm employs 15 and had sales of $1.5 million for the same fiscal year. Nancy Kieffer is president of Fabri-Glass.
The owners received a 2005 Iowa Venture Award in December. The program of the Iowa Area Development Group of West Des Moines, Iowa, recognizes the state's business leaders and entrepreneurs.