The plastics industry has been challenged with an unprecedented series of economic events, changes in the availability of credit and the highest level of national and international competition ever. These challenges combined to create huge new innovation opportunities. The ability to grow via conventional methods still works in these times, when coupled with an outstanding level of customer service, salesmanship and needs that can be met with existing product technologies.
One key to success in creating higher-value components and increased profits per unit for new products is the use of applied innovation. The broad sets of expertise within the global plastics industry cover 17 distinct areas of processing, many new product designs and a multitude of polymeric raw-material technologies. Nearly every engineer, small-business owner and original equipment manufacturer product manager can directly benefit by applying the many techniques of product innovation in creating novel, exciting and profitable products.
Using innovation to drive sales higher is a proven formula to help share development costs as well as the profits that come from success along the chain from suppliers through end users. Successful new products typically offer higher gross profit margins than duplications of current components. Following is a brief examination of how innovation can be generated, how it provides value and specific sources of value using proven techniques.
Design opportunities can be generated from a broad variety of resources to fuel top-line growth. Engineers, industrial designers, product managers and end-use customers can each provide a stream of new product-design opportunities. New component designs can be identified and evaluated by outside design firms, in-house resources and, in some cases, motivated raw material suppliers. At OEMs, new product designs nearly always offer the opportunity for effective differentiation, market-share gains and typically higher gross profit per unit.
In many cases, the combination of two or three thermoplastics (solid or foamed), thermoplastics bonded to a host of TPE technologies and thermoplastic composites mated to TPEs or commodity thermoplastics can offer huge opportunities in new component designs for higher product performance, differentiation in the marketplace and occasionally new intellectual property. The choices of which thermoplastic composites, plastics and TPEs to combine have been steadily growing over the past two decades.
The melt bond of those product groups has been successfully and clearly demonstrated in more than 20 specific industries over the past two decades. The creativity of material combinations creates a huge impulse to end users as they consider the many options of new products.
Manufacturers of process equipment have done an excellent job in creating a broad series of highly specific ways to combine materials efficiently. A few examples of highly automated productivity are:
* Integrated high-speed foaming in multimaterial profile extrusions.
* Automated lamination of custom sheet combined with fabrics and foam.
* Two-, three- and even four-shot injection molding encapsulating hundreds of commercial components.
* Four to six layers in extrusion blow molded finished components using plastics and barrier materials.
* In-line thermoforming of two- and three-layer sheet in shaped components.
* Hybrid machines for in-line compounding with precise injection molding for high-value molded structural components.
Combinations of these items can be used to execute the optimum component.
The best finished-product value can be created by the use of committed, multidisciplinary teams utilizing professionals of distinctly different backgrounds focusing on a common goal: finished-product differentiation through use of the specific new and established building blocks. Innovation can be initiated by a variety of professionals in our industry. No country has the broad experience base to draw from like we have here in the U.S. The business impact of using teams working together toward new design is to differentiate positioning of new consumer products.
Who can participate in innovation? Quite literally, nearly anyone interested in making new components in a different way using either single or multiple materials. The methodology to help create innovative new products can use inputs of all types from technical processing, design, materials and product personnel. Some of the key questions to consider in addressing product innovation include:
* What function does the new product need to deliver?
* What target audience will value the new product developed using innovation?
* Can the targeted new function/aesthetics be accomplished by addressing these options:
* A new design with existing polymers?
* A combination of new polymers with basic existing product architecture?
* A new process to combine polymers in ways that speed process productivity and lower costs?
* New tooling method(s) to use multiple materials (plastic with TPEs, or plastic with plastic) more cost effectively?
* Combinations of the above methods?
The specific combination of a product's new function and aesthetics can often be developed through applied brainstorming focusing on unmet needs, new consumer and business preference for enhanced convenience and how to effectively differentiate the new product from specific previous competition. A number of outside suppliers have generated proven, effective approaches in executing innovation.
The subject of product innovation is truly a competitive weapon that OEMs across more than 20 industries are using to plot a course of new profitable growth by utilizing the broad talents of our polymer design, tooling, and processing industry professionals.
Who can provide sources for innovation opportunities?
* Veteran processors in specific component production techniques.
* Experienced chemists at raw material suppliers.
* Industrial designers (particularly younger and/or newer to the world of product design).
* Sales/marketing personnel at chemical companies/compounders.
* Product managers and sales forces at end users.
A few of the key questions to ask in order to spur innovation include:
1. What new function does the finished component need to deliver? The new functionalities of material combinations can often include:
* Strong barrier properties coupled with the cost effectiveness of commodity thermoplastics
* Nearly any type of desired soft-touch, soft-grip features can be generated using seven major established families of melt-bondable TPEs from more than 10 major established material suppliers
* Huge gains in component toughness can be achieved through combinations of engineering thermoplastics with very tough TPEs
* Molded thermoplastic composites offer huge gains in stiffness to replace metal-based designs. These can be coupled with commodity thermoplastics and even bondable TPEs.
* New plastics and elastomers that offer highly specific gas-barrier properties in multimaterial-based components through blow molding, injection molding and blown film
2. What improved aesthetics can the new design deliver?
New designs using blow molded, extruded or injection molded components offer an incredible range of color, texture, stiffness, outside surface durometer/modulus, conductivity, weatherability, color stability using all material options from the global thermoplastics industry. Quite literally, designers have more tools in shape, form and function than ever before. The processor and materials industries offer an incredible broad spectrum of solutions to successfully execute designs in new consumer components. This approach can be utilized with specific polymers from engineering thermoplastics, commodity thermoplastics and TPE technologies currently available.
3. How can increased value be delivered at lower prices?
Higher product value can be generated with inspired designs. The automotive interior and power-tool industry segments are both great examples illustrating that reasonably priced raw materials can offer highly attractive aesthetics, durable performance and a huge choice of component design execution options. These options include several types of semi-automated and fully automated techniques from several thermoplastic processes, including blow molding, injection molding and thermoformed sheet structures. Higher value can be derived from high-throughput tooling methods coupled with selective use of the wide array of thermoplastics described above.
The use of more than one single polymer directly provides a pathway to provide multiple finished product functionalities at reasonable raw material prices. The productivity (parts/hour) achievable from modern thermoplastic processes offers much greater value due to higher and higher throughput rates in nearly every single thermoplastic process vs. those of two and three decades ago.