DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — A Japanese company at K 2013 has found a potentially red-hot new market for replacing metal with plastics — hand-held fire extinguishers.
At the booth of blow molding equipment supplier Frontier Inc. (Hall 14/A70-6), the company is displaying what is likely the world's first thermoplastic blow molded fire extinguisher.
For Frontier, it required three years of research on behalf of a client to find a way to mold a container capable of handling the intense pressure needed for an extinguisher, five times what's required for a water bottle.
It also offers a glimpse into how industrial design can be used to freshen up an age-old product.
The extinguisher manufacturer, Hatsuta Seisakusho Co. Ltd., believes that updating the serious, stodgy metal cans with containers in clear polyethylene naphthalate resin offers a lighter look and feel that might help it expand market share and appeal to design-oriented customers.
"With fire extinguishers there's really nothing much new; it's been the same product for 30 or 40 years," said Moray Crawford, an engineer with Osaka, Japan-based Hatsuta.
"This is a designer fire extinguisher," he said in an interview at Frontier's booth. "It is actually slightly more expensive than doing it in steel. It's not going to compete on cost. It's going to compete on quality."
With no background in plastics, Hatsuta, Japan's second-largest maker of fire extinguishers, worked with Frontier, based in Ueda City, Japan.
Frontier built the molds and spent several years developing a specially designed blow molding machine that can process PEN resin and meet technical requirements set by fire safety regulators.
The bottle preform, for example, has to be 20 millimeters thick, which is 10 times the 2mm preforms for a typical water bottle, said Frontier President Yoshinori Nakamura.
That preform thickness makes it much more difficult to keep the final bottle clear, a key requirement for the final product, said Nakamura.
Crawford said the companies tried to make the container in PET resin, but PET can only keep the powder, nitrogen and helium inside an extinguisher under pressure for about a year.
The extinguisher needs to maintain the pressure for 10 years, he said. PEN also has better ultraviolet barrier properties, the companies said.
"The application is completely different from a drink bottle," Nakamura said. "To meet such strong pressure you need to start with design."
He said the companies also worked with Japanese materials supplier Teijin Ltd., with corporate headquarters in Osaka and Tokyo.
Crawford listed a number of improvements in the plastic extinguisher:
• It's 60 percent of the weight of a traditional version.
• It's see-through, allowing firefighters and others with training to visually inspect the powder inside and see if it's still OK.
• Redesigning from the ground up allowed Hatsuta to add some functional improvements, such as a soft grip at the end of the hose and a larger ring on top to carry it.
The extinguisher is also designed for recyclability, using common grades of other materials like polypropylene and ABS for the base and handle.
"It is designed to be completely recyclable," Crawford said. "All the materials separate out."
Named the Calmie, the extinguisher cannot be sold in the market yet, as it has yet to get approval from Japanese fire safety authorities.
Hatsuta first showed the PEN extinguisher at a fire equipment trade show in Germany in 2010, and at the time the firm thought Japanese approval would come soon after that, Crawford said.
It has not displayed the product publicly until this year's K show, which it attended at Frontier's request, but it is hopeful that the product will receive approval in the next six months, he said.
The fire safety regulations are based around metal containers and the agencies are conservative in their assessment of new products, Crawford said. The company is not allowed to show the PEN extinguisher at a Japanese trade show until it has that final approval.
For Frontier, the project produced new blow molding technology it is applying to other new markets that need high-pressure containers, such as liquid petroleum gas and hydrogen fuel-cell tanks, Nakamura said.
Frontier, which employs 44 and makes about 50 blow molding machines a year, is very focused on technology, he said.
Nakamura summed up Frontier's R&D strategy as being willing to put money and time into new, potentially market-opening applications: "When we have a request from the customer we don't say no, we say yes."