Mold making adjusts
Low-volume jobs may not require a mold, as advances in rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques emerge.
``Some parts previously requiring tooling through rapid technologies may no longer need a tool to be built in first place,'' said Glenn Starkey, president of Wauconda, Ill.-based Progressive Components International Corp., a tooling-components supplier.
Mold makers will build tools with higher complexity for mass volumes using advanced injection molding processes, part-reduction techniques and improvements in in-mold labeling, decorating and assembly, Starkey said. The trend is to put more in the mold to make the part cost less.
Starkey agreed manual assembly is likely to become obsolete in most regions.
Now, a mold may produce both parts - previously molded separately - and an automated system can assemble the components before they emerge from the equipment.
``In the decades ahead, we will see superpower toolmaking companies combine technologies to tool up for programs'' with more breadth, Starkey said. ``Tooling will continue to be the least-expensive way to produce parts in high volumes.''
Toolmakers will do more in the product-development cycle and will use multiple technologies, Starkey said. That may create opportunity for complex tooling in the Western Hemisphere because a lot of people on the other side of the world will want those same products, he said. ``That will give toolmakers in the Western world a leg up in the decades ahead.''
Geographically, global brand owners will continue to expand beyond their home markets in an effort to sell products to emerging populations.
Processors may use additive fabrication to manufacture many plastic parts and products on demand.
``Banks of [three-dimensional] printers will be operating in factories, but the majority will be much closer to the customer,'' said Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo. ``Consumers will download datasets and build parts'' as needs arise for replacements or new products.
``For example, if you want a new lamp or chair, it will be relatively easy to manufacture it yourself,'' he said, citing the avant-garde lighting products and furniture of Materialise.MGX of Leuven, Belgium, as examples.
``Individuals with creative skills will design their own using Web-based design tools, [and] others will modify existing designs, but within limits,'' Wohlers said. ``The materials will include a wide range of thermoplastics, as well as thermoset materials. Composites will be big, as will materials with nanoparticles that improve strength properties and reduce flammability and smoke emissions.''
Three-D printer production of avatars - models of people from virtual environments such as Linden Research Inc.'s Second Life, Mindark PE AB's Entropia Universe and Forterra Systems Inc.'s platform - will use significant resin, as will action and sports figures, personalized characters and video game creatures.
``Players will select what they want to build, click a button and enter their credit card details,'' Wohlers said. ``The model[s] will arrive by mail a couple days later. Others will build the models themselves on their home-based 3-D printer.''
Most of the technical pieces exist today. ``Prices for plastic-based 3-D printers will break into three digits [under $1,000] in five to seven years'' and to about $250 in 10-15 years, he said.
Materials may be costly.
``3-D printer system and material manufacturers will use the document printer and inkjet cartridge business model,'' Wohlers said.
Sales of polycarbonate should grow globally at about 6-8 percent a year in the coming decades, said Sam Stewart, vice president of sales and marketing for advanced resins in North America for Bayer MaterialScience LLC in Pittsburgh. Differentiation within Bayer and for customers will be important.
``We are finding more opportunities for applications that were never thought of before,'' Stewart said. ``A lot of the innovation will be up to customers'' and may involve Bayer additive chemistry to enhance PC, its cleanliness and its manufacturing processes. Parent firm Bayer AG is based in Leverkusen, Germany.
Areas of interest include antimicrobial and other bio-based materials and processes, optoelectronics, high-performance polymers and nanocomposites. Stewart cited examples of developments and concepts with future market potential.
A Bayer global AutoCreative team is working on technology to incorporate PC and polyurethane components in panoramic roof modules.
``The advantages are weight and cost savings,'' with potential improvements of 40 percent vs. glass, Stewart said.
Bayer and automotive concept firm Rinspeed Inc. of Zumikon, Switzerland, pursue ideas for incorporating materials in vehicles and are planning displays for K 2007.
Bayer's Aura infusion technology may allow automakers to build smaller model runs and use light-emitting-diode lenses to differentiate products. Technology licensee Apollo Color Coating of Roseville, Mich., may create items such as turn-signal optics.
Clear-tint Bayer PC was injection molded for Apollo's headlamp internal optics on a concept Lincoln MKR sports sedan. A single high-brightness LED was used in each adaptive headlamp.
InPhase Technologies Inc. of Longmont, Colo., is using Bayer PC substrate material in developing a storage medium that reads holographic images instead of individual data bytes.
Bree Collection GmbH & Co. KG of Isernhagen, Germany, created a woman's handbag with interior illumination. Nonconductive freely formable electroluminescent layers are printed on transparent Bayer PC film, which is shaped and then back-injected with thermoplastic resin. Electroluminescent technology may surface on automotive instrument panels, information technology devices, cellular telephones and bicycle helmets.
Plastics are here forever but need sustainability, said Gregory Nelson, executive vice president and polymers business group head of Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn. ``More innovative things will be done'' through design using existing resins and their extensions.
While not fully defined, sustainability is a big issue today and is likely to have an impact on retailers, brand owners and converters, he said.
A new Eastman plant in Columbia, S.C., uses IntegRex technology in making PET. ``That technology reduced the environmental footprint by 50 percent. We worked for three years to reduce the energy and environmental footprint and in getting conversion costs down. Now, it is more sustainable on how it impacts the environment.''
Brand owners seek to reduce the resin in containers but, for the 2-liter soft drink version, may be reaching limits for the bottle arena, he said. ``In other areas, they have not reached limits.''
Eastman has bolstered its internal product design, innovation and related engineering capabilities, spending more on that type of research and development than for R&D for any other business segment.
That investment links with Eastman's efforts to understand the total value chain, work earlier on design aspects and build relationships. ``Over the last four years, we have learned how to interact with market more efficiently,'' he said. ``We talk to Wal-Mart and Home Depot'' and brand owners during early stages of product design.
Nelson foresees more uses of extrusion blow molding techniques for packaging shapes and the possibility of a change in polymer morphology creating a new market niche for plastics and enterprising brand owners.
``We will see more applications to use plastics in new ways'' including packaging in custom shapes and various shrink-film configurations, he said. ``People are willing to spend more on packaging if it improves the buy rate on the shelf.''
Nelson sees plastics as a great solution for the future with sustainability as a key element.