John Vlachopoulos has been immersed in polymer science for 48 years, but he feels science still has lots to offer to the plastics industry.
Vlachopoulos is professor emeritus in the department of chemical engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where in 1987 he formed the Centre for Advanced Polymer Processing and Design. He joined the university in 1968 when he parlayed a background in computer science and the Apollo space program into studies in polymer processing and rheology.
Since then, Vlachopoulos has published widely on modeling plastics processes and SPE has recognized his contributions in several ways. He is a fellow of SPE and has garnered awards from the association for his work on understanding plastic extrusion processes and for education.
In a phone interview, Vlachopoulos said injection molding has benefited greatly from theoretical studies and equipment innovation, but there is much more to uncover in other plastics processes.
"I decided to concentrate in other areas," he recalled. "For example, extrusion science is more difficult."
Injection molding modeling is somewhat straightforward because it mainly deals with plastic in melt stages. Extrusion simulation, however, needs to account for many more factors, such as transport of pellets, melting them, mixing the polymer with additives and then pumping the mixture through dies and cooling it to desired shapes.
"Improvement in the sciences will have a big impact on the plastics industry," Vlachopoulos said. Computer technology will be key to mastering plastics processing.
An emerging area where they will be prominent is in Industry 4.0 and the 'internet of things,' a trend begun in Germany and making inroads everywhere.
"It will have enormous impact on plastics," Vlachopoulos predicted.
3D printing will be another wave of the future, he explained.
"It will have a role side-by-side to injection molding," according to Vlachopoulos. "However, the range of plastics [for 3D printing] will have to be enlarged."
3D production runs of 10,000 parts might make sense in the future. Consumers will demand more customization that 3D printing might satisfy.
Plastics will become more widespread in current markets over the next 25 years, said Vlachopoulos.
Infrastructure will be an even more enormous market for plastics. Demand for plastics in pipe, for example, will grow as corrugated and other plastic pipes replace traditional materials like concrete that can cause problems many years after installation.
Housing, automotive and aerospace will capitalize on plastic properties like thermal protection, light weight and strength.
Plastics packaging, too, will grow but it will rely on increased recycling.
"Recycling has to be improved by communities and countries," Vlachopoulos opined. "It's absolutely necessary because plastics get bad press."
Vlachopolous' work is grounded in research, but most of it can be applied in the real world.