DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — Peter Chu and his 40-person team of materials researchers at Taiwanese molder Mitac Precision Technology Co. Ltd. have a challenge — find a competitive niche against much larger rivals in the electronics manufacturing industry like iPhone supplier Foxconn.
MPT, which has more than 1,000 molding machines and 6,000 employees in factories in China and Vietnam but is still dwarfed by giants like Jabil and Foxconn, believes one answer is a sustained focus on research and development.
The company recently exhibited at its first plastics show, Germany's K fair, presenting several grades of bio-based nylons and polylactic acid resins, along with its version of technology for rapid heat cycle molding, all developed at its plastics technology center in China.
“We want to make this a big business,” said Chu, senior director of Mitac's Plastics Materials Business Development Center in Suzhou, China, in an interview at the company's K fair booth.
“In the [electronics manufacturing] field, the competition is so cruel. We have many, many injection molding competitors that have tough times now. So we want to focus on new materials,” he said.
Mitac has one small compounding line with 1,200 metric tons per year capacity in Suzhou to make its bio-based resins, and plans to install a second line next year.
The company has been developing its bio-based materials and carbon fiber plastic molding technology since 2007, but only in the last year started to commercialize the new resins in a serious way, Chu said.
At K, it was introducing a range of products in its “Greemas” line with a biomass content from 87 percent to 95 percent. Its PLA grades focus on packaging, housewares, toys and furniture and its bio-based nylons target automotive and electronics applications.
The company became interested in bioplastics in 2007 as an alternative to rising prices for traditional fossil fuel-based petrochemicals, Chu said, and because it saw growing interest in “green” materials to reduce the carbon footprint of products.
But it's also discovered how complicated it is getting biomaterials to meet performance requirements like strength and flame resistance needed for consumer electronics and cars, Chu said. With the price of plant-based plastics still higher than petrochemical plastics, commercialization is in the early stages, he said.
“We want to test the market response,” he said. “It seems so far, so good.”
The Greemas PLA is being used in a line of food storage containers made by Taiwanese manufacturer Chao Long Motor Parts Corp. It's also been used by Taiwanese molder Plastudio in a food container targeted at eco-conscious consumers. That product which won a German iF Design Award this year.
The other major thrust of Mitac's new materials strategy is rapid heat cycle molding technology, licensed from Japan's Ono Sangyo Co. Ltd., to make materials that are 50 percent plastic and 50 percent glass fiber.
Chu claimed MPT is one of the most experienced users of the RHCM technology. It started research in 2007, unveiled it commercially to its electronics industry customers in 2010, and has used it to make lightweight carbon fiber plastic computer housings for a major Japanese manufacturer, among others.
The RHCM process quickly reduces the temperature in the mold after the plastic has been injected, improving the surface finish, eliminating weld lines and raising efficiency of the production process, the company said.
It's a complex process requiring special tooling and precise use of temperature controllers, MPT said.
“It is ideal particularly for products whose plastic materials contain glass fiber,” the company said on its website. “Although many companies have started adopting RHCM processes, both their yield rates and quality still lag far behind Mitac Precision.”
More than 80 percent of the 450 injection molding machines at its Suzhou, Jiangsu province. factory have the RHCM technology, the company said.
Chu said the company reduces its costs in Suzhou by generating the heat needed for RHCM by piping in waste steam from a nearby power generation plant at a Nanya Plastics facility.
Chu claims MPT is one of the few Taiwanese contract manufacturers to spend substantial amounts of money on plastics research, and works closely with materials suppliers in its Suzhou labs.
Combining RHCM with bio-based materials makes more sophisticated, valuable consumer electronics components that do not need spray painting, which further reduces the environmental impact of its manufacturing, he said.
MPT is a subsidiary of Taiwan's Getac Technology Corp., which had US$547 million in sales last year. Getac, which is a unit of Taiwan's US$25 billion Mitac-Synnex Business Group, was formed in 1989 as a joint venture with GE Aerospace to make military electronics.
The company has other strategies to deal with rising manufacturing costs in China. In 2011, for example, it expanded its manufacturing in Vietnam, where it has 200 injection molding machines and 1,500 employees.
But Chu said the company will continue to push forward on new technology, and plans to exhibit at next year's Chinaplas trade show and the 2015 NPE show in the United States.
“We would like more and more people to know our materials,” he said. “In North America and Europe, lots of people know these kinds of materials.”