Plastics innovation sometimes comes from unexpected places. In the automotive industry, it could be something as simple as a new interior door panel for a minivan. In nanotechnology, protective films too thin to be seen with the naked eye are causing ripples of interest among processors.
At the Plastics News Executive Forum, products and the thinking behind them were presented to attendees seeking insight into emerging industry trends.
Ken Shaner of International Automotive Components Group North America Inc. has spearheaded several two-shot, multicolor injection molding projects since joining the company in 2006, when IAC North America acquired his old employer, Lear Corp.'s interiors business. Among those were an award-winning door panel for Chrysler LLC's Dodge Caliber crossover vehicle and a similar panel for the company's Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
Shaner said a 2007 survey by J.D. Power and Associates showed 51 percent of consumers ranked interior comfort as their main reason for buying a particular vehicle. Comfort ranked second only to reliability and durability, which 62 percent ranked as their main reason.
``It makes us think a little bit harder when we design our products,'' said Shaner, vice president of advanced engineering for Dearborn, Mich.-based IAC.
For the 2008 Town & Country door, IAC designers wanted weight reduction, recyclability and a pleasing touch and feel for their end product, he said. The result: a thermoplastic elastomer molded over a polypropylene substrate.
``It gave us a [tactile] feel, a soft look and very distinct color lines with very tight radii and very, very sharp, clear definition between the upper and lower two colors,'' Shaner said.
For its production line, IAC bought four Husky Quadloc 3,250-ton injection presses capable of making two door assemblies, front and rear, for each 60-second cycle.
``That equates to making one door every 71/2 seconds, 24 hours a day - so that's a lot of door panels,'' he said.
Shaner said automakers keep IAC on its toes because they've gone to shorter vehicle-design cycles, meaning they now want new panel designs every three to four years. Given Chrysler's recent legal battles to get products and tooling from bankrupt suppliers - including Michigan companies Plastech Engineered Products Inc. and Blue Water Plastics Inc. - Shaner said IAC North America maintains active communication with its suppliers.
``We try to have a handle on a supplier that's struggling long before they're in a position to shut us down,'' he said.
On the nanotechnology front, Scott Rickert, president and chief executive officer of Valley View, Ohio-based Nanofilm Ltd., told forum attendees the rising costs of raw materials and transportation, as well as tight federal regulation of halogen gases, make nanofilms an excellent choice for protective plastic coatings.
Nanofilms are less than 100 nanometers thick - 10,000 times thinner than a human hair - and one teacup of the material would cover 6,500 windows on the Empire State Building, according to Rickert.
Since 1986, Nanofilm has made films resistant to abrasions, stains and contamination for optics including eyeglasses and binoculars, as well as similar coatings for touch screens, DVDs and sporting equipment. The organic films are too thin to extrude, so they're ``grown in place'' and sprayed into molds in liquid form by end users, he said.
``[Nanofilms] have a particular thickness that they like to grow to, and then they stop,'' Rickert said. ``So, if you put more material down, they won't get any thicker.''
He said nanofilms, which are engineered to specific lifetimes - usually less than three years - cannot be mixed with other resins to extrude sheet or film with a protective nanocoating, so they occupy a profitable niche in the plastics industry.
On the heels of a successful Nanofilm window treatment for office buildings, the company has engineered a new treatment that he said cuts heat loss from treated windows by 50 percent. It would cost about $15 per window in the average home, Rickert said, but he expects most customers to be industrial window washers, because the treatment must be applied within a specified time, or it becomes unusable.
``The reality is, the average homeowner's not going to put it on,'' Rickert said.
The heat-resistant treatment is being tested on office buildings in Detroit and should be ready for market later this year.