Plastics companies have been investing in outreach programs and collaborating with industrial designers for years, but each new project continues to pay off with insights for resin makers — not just in terms of how designers think but in new information about their own products.
“We went in thinking we would teach them all about our material, but they taught us a great deal,” said Eastman Chemical Co.'s downstream engagement and design director, Cathy Dodd. The resin maker's collaboration — with Portland, Ore., design firm Ziba — focused on creating a new product using Eastman's Tritan copolyester. The result: a whiskey flask called the Topo, with thick and thin curving lines that mimic topographical lines on a map.
Although not initially intended for production, Kingport, Tenn.-based Eastman is showing the Topo to customers, hoping to interest an OEM in taking it to market — a liquor maker or perhaps a perfume company or another firm with an end use for small, specialized containers, Dodd said in an interview at the Industrial Designers Society of America conference, held Aug. 15-18 in Boston.
At PolyOne Corp., a 11/2-day “design storm” with students from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., focused on developing concepts for the home health-care market. Rapid Prototype + Manufacturing LLC, a unit of Avon Lake-based injection molder Thogus Products Co., took part as well, to provide insight about the manufacturability of concepts created with the input of the 15 design students.
“Students are the first adopters of new materials, new plastics and new manufacturing techniques,” said Anil Saraf, market innovation director for Avon Lake, Ohio-based PolyOne. “Students are very knowledgeable about the trends of the markets, but not as much the materials.”
The project zeroed in on designing concepts for a stuffed animal with resin-based medical monitoring devices for pediatric patients, along with two products for older adults — a jewel-like pendant to provide active adults with reminders to exercise, and weights with a soft-touch thermoplastic elastomer for use in physical therapy.
Resin suppliers, molders, students and designers had to “think universally about a new product,” said veteran designer Chuck Pelly, who contributed to the project, as did fellow industrial designers Scott Clear and Chris Lefteri.
Having an open view to using multiple materials contributed to stronger concepts, Pelly said. The Better Bear would use soft materials for a cuddly, huggable stuffed animal that could comfort a child but contain the monitoring equipment within plastics. Both products for older users — the Go-Let exercise reminder and the ReFit therapy system — would take advantage of LEDs.
“It's nice to get multiple materials involved,” he said. “It shows respect to the base material because you're not forcing it to be something it's not. It's experiments like this — that mix media — that are a real touch of the future.”
The PolyOne-backed art center project did not have time to make physical copies of its concepts. But Eastman and Ziba turned out several hundred copies of the Topo flask, and in the process learned more about Tritan and the design's potential.
Eastman first approached Ziba two years ago with the idea of creating anything that caught the design group's imagination, as long as it used Tritan. In early sessions, designers played with samples of other products, using the material to get a feel for its characteristics. The clear plastic's “glasslike” property was an early touchstone, as was its durability, said Paul Backett, Ziba industrial design director.
“We focused on a few of these superhero properties, then tried to push them to the max,” he said.
The group ended up focusing on two concepts, a safety light and a flask, and brought the latter to limited production.
The flask also brought Tritan into a high-end luxury market and linked it to growing interest in regional specialized liquor production.
“We talked to a lot of mixologists and it was important to them where they got their ingredients, where they were from,” said Ziba's materials specialist, Jaclyn Suzuki.
Creating very thick and very thin sections of the interior cavity also allowed Ziba to play with shape, creating curves corresponding to topographical lines on a map. For this project, the design firm chose the shape of hills near Eastman's Tennessee home, which allowed it to pay tribute both to Eastman and to regional whiskey production.
A similar topographical layout could be used to represent other regional whiskeys, or to replicate a company logo, Suzuki said.
The extremes in thick and thin sections emphasized the efforts of Eastman engineers, who worked closely with Ziba to create the molds and the final product.
“I've visited a lot of factories in my career, but this was a prototyping factory, so they're really testing things out and playing with things,” Backett said. “It was bringing craft to the process. It was really eye-opening for me.”