Amid larger macrotrends in society, the plastics industry must consider where it wants to travel next in the category of smart materials, according to keynote speaker Clive Bosnyak who outlined plastic's growth potential in the segment during the Society of Plastics Engineers' annual technical conference, held May 6-10 in Cincinnati.
``The new world of smart systems is just beginning,'' Bosnyak, president of Creative Polymers LLC of Austin, Texas, told the audience.
``There is a lot to be gained. We need to think about where we want to go with plastics, in particular, for the future, for smart-based systems. This is a huge task,'' Bosnyak said.
According to his presentation abstract, smart materials are those materials that change behavior when stimulated by light, pressure, thermal, electrical or magnetic fields. Early applications of smart materials are electrorheological fluids for clutches and piezoelectric sensors for air bags. The challenge is to create significant additional value to large plastics markets by bringing enhanced functionality through smart materials systems designs.
The larger macrotrends include increasing environmental and safety concerns; the aging of baby boomers; and global commerce and competition. In plastics itself, the material category still is growing, but in a different way than it did even five years ago.
``It's going to continue to develop down the path of higher performance, lower systems costs, for example,'' Bosnyak said. ``And it's obviously growing beyond the petrochemical base.''
In the global environment, it's increasingly difficult to get meaningful patents that truly provide a competitive advantage.
``What that's telling you is that you need to start building more complexity in all of these aspects in order to be successful,'' he said. ``The technologies required to be successful are also getting more complex. There's more convergence of scientific fields. Mathematics, biology, physics, it's all coming together.''
Bosnyak, who spent 25 years at Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., said that a multidisciplinary approach is needed for the task of pushing the materials further in plastics.
``That represents a challenge,'' he said, ``because in the academic world, there is an emphasis in universities on individual research activities.''
Companies also must clearly identify market opportunities and match those market opportunities with their internal capabilities, and they also must know how to access external capabilities they don't possess in-house.
Very often, companies will be missing something they need in order to be successful, he said.
What oftentimes hits companies hardest is the lack of recognition of innovational business models.
``So as we start going forward with smart systems, in order to truly capture the value of the products, you may have to completely change your business model,'' he said. ``That is a challenge for many of the conventional companies today in plastics.''
Bosnyak said you can see the materials bringing sensing into the system. Take, for example, self-cleaning surfaces that vibrate dirt off the surface.
There are several companies involved in these systems. NanoSonic Inc. of Blacksburg, Va., was created in 1998 in cooperation with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the state of Virginia.
NanoSonic President Rick Claus said in a May 16 telephone interview that his company spins off university research into commercial products. Now with 63 employees, it has staff with backgrounds in inorganic chemistry and polymer chemistry. And Claus, for his own education, has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
``The neat thing is to get a whole group of people to work together from those different areas,'' Claus said. ``We value those contributions. And it takes that to do these multidisciplinary kinds of things.''
During the last three months alone, the company has secured 11 new contracts. NanoSonic has exclusively licensed nine patents covering electrostatic self-assembly processing and use from Virginia Tech and is establishing its own intellectual property portfolio to enable process, material and device commercialization.
ESA, for its part, allows the ultra-uniform formation of multiple, nanometer-thick layers of material into functional ultra-thin films and recent improvements allow the formation of much thicker films and bulk materials.
NanoSonic was named 2007 Small Business of the Year by the Virginia Business Magazine. The company also received Small Business Innovative Research program funds from organizations including the United States Air Force, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the National Science Foundation.
Claus sees the biggest growth areas in biomedical, defense and aerospace and electronics.