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The future of plastics.

When the Society of Plastics Engineers was conceived 50 years ago, the plastics industry was still a "new kid on the block." But the fledgling Society would grow into a powerful resource of intellectual achievement and enthusiasm, a dedicated professional organization, and a consistently nurturing force in a rapidly evolving industry.

During the early years, and well beyond, plastics were often considered interlopers by engineers and designers, who saw the materials as unproven and risky. Stories abounded of incidents that did not inspire confidence. This writer, for example, recalls the plastic knob on my car's gearshift that shattered in my hand one cold winter morning, sending me, bleeding, to seek emergency treatment.

The traditional materials moved smoothly onto the designers' drawing boards, following a long trail of applications supporting the status quo. For plastics, every new application was a battle against inhibitions. The practical, and psychological, entrances to acceptance were typically blocked by mental "show me first" barricades, reinforced by an "if it's not broken, don't fix it" philosophy. And why not? In retrospect, it is a credit to the engineering/design profession that curiosity was tempered by caution, and that imagination and innovation were restrained by the absence of sufficient, field-proven data.

But the plastics industry was already well on its way towards making a creative and commercial impact on society. The rapidly expanding markets after World War II, which nurtured not only opportunity but also mounting competition, enabled the inherent capabilities of plastics to spark and foster the design imagination. The mixed bag of early successes and failures only represented the growing pains of an industry that was to become a powerful mechanism for change, one that would provide a wide range of industrial and consumer product innovations through modern materials technology.

Credit should be given to human ingenuity as the prime mover in the plastics industry's impressive growth. With the wide range of functional and production capabilities now available, the manifestations of this ingenuity have long ago destroyed many of the application inhibitions of the past. In the world of engineering, there is a fundamental difference between concerns whether a material will be reliable--whether it will work equally well as or better than a competitive one--and a bottom-line analysis of cost factors. Plastics now work. The battles on today's drawing boards are no longer to seize the confidence of engineers on the basis of functional performance so much as to resolve the many elements of comparative cost analyses.

In this context, the plastics industry has done an exquisite job of combining advances in materials technology, part integration, productivity, and design innovation to drive cost-effectiveness in response to always changing customer needs. We now have a plastics industry that, with its finely tuned capabilities of tailoring materials, approaches every potential application with a "can do" attitude. There is very little self-effacement anymore. "Let's talk about what you need," says the materials supplier, the compounder, or the fabricator to the engineer or manufacturer. "Let's work together. We can do it."

Possibly the clearest indicator of the acceptance of the plastics industry in the halls of design is the growth of cooperative partnerships--not, in this instance, meaning actual business mergers, but instead, relationships between suppliers and users that bespeak mutual creative dependence and confidence as new designs are developed. Nothing signifies the ascendancy of the plastics industry more than the fact that users increasingly invite chosen suppliers to "break bread" with them early in the design processes, with full confidence in their competence and their integrity. In many cases, large and small OEMs, fully aware that delivery of quality is the minimum baseline for all the efforts, have turned over responsibilities for much of the basic design functions to their suppliers.

The result of all the evolutionary directions--in R&D, in diversity of products, in responsiveness to satisfying many property and productivity requirements, and in quality control--is that the plastics industry is well positioned to respond to the globalization requirements of multinational corporations.

It would seem then, as industrialized societies continue to regenerate themselves and third-world countries evolve with expanding needs for products and services, that plastics are in an enviable position for growth, with an open-ended future.

But of course, utopia is not yet upon us. The plastics industry has earned the confidence of its users; it has, with its techniques of alloying and blending, built highly sophisticated capabilities for lower-cost physical property delivery without the comparatively more exorbitant costs of new resin development; and it has provided a full range of production processes while continuing to develop and exploit new ones.

However, the industry has not yet fully responded to or resolved the potential problems in its future regarding the environment. It is unfortunate--and grossly unfair--that in discussions about solid waste, the finger of blame nearly always points to plastics and the plastics industry, and rarely, if ever, to the lack of a sufficient individual and public sense of responsibility and commitment for controlling disposal. While infrastructures for recycling grow, with commendable involvement by numerous segments of the plastics industry, individual and public dedication is often limited to lip service and posturing.

It is recalled that during the festivities of the last nationally celebrated Earth Day, trash was indiscriminately discarded and recycling bins were largely ignored. A walk along a beautiful beach is similarly recalled. Plastic bottles, containers, and broken toys dominated the residue along the shore. But none of these objects had their own mobility. They ended up there because of the acts of uncaring people who were taking their environment for granted.

The future of plastics is in the hands of the people and their governments as much as in the plastics industry itself. Polymer science and technology are just short of magic. Their potential--to provide the economical goods and services that can enrich people's lives--seems boundless. The plastics industry is intrinsically dynamic enough to literally change the world--because so much of the world depends on the availability of reliable, cost-effective materials to meet vast requirements in many markets and endeavors--but it cannot do it alone.

The hand has more than one finger for pointing. The consumer cannot continue to have it both ways--enjoying the conveniences of plastics without sharing the responsibility for their ultimate environmental impact; and government also must become more of an ally than an antagonist and obstructionist.

Therein lies the solution for ending the "war" between plastics and the environment, and guaranteeing that plastics technology will continue to contribute its wizardry to the good of society.

Some industry predictions regarding the future of plastics depict a wide range of challenges and opportunities:

Widespread penetration

"In the year 2050, plastics will be the material of choice in a majority of products. Our homes will be almost totally plastic; modularization will permit relocating rooms, changing floor plans. All-plastic modular automobiles will have composite space frames and will be battery powered, using plastic solar radiation collectors for charging. Highways and city streets will be paved with recycled plastics, with miniature radio transceivers embedded in the roads. In medicine, we will have much greater availability of plastic body components--hearts, kidneys, intestines, and bones. Our world will be dependent upon plastics."--John Richardson, director, Modulus, Allied-Signal, Inc., Engineered Plastics.

Teamwork with computers

"Computer networking, facilitating almost simultaneous design, engineering, and manufacturing, will play a major role in future plastics applications. Good communication, accurate data, proper tools, optimized software, and well-defined goals will become increasingly important in team efforts of concurrent engineering."--James McGuire, mold analysis engineer, BASF Plastics Application Center.

Setting designs apart

"Into the future, technology creation will be one of the most valuable methods of competitive differentiation. The time value of service differentiation is very short. A competitor, given the will, can equal or exceed a provided level of service--whether it is getting the invoice right, on-time delivery, or premier customer service. With true technological differentiation (especially if patented), however, the time line is measured in years, and allows capturing maximum value.

"The biggest issue will be the effective management of plastics in the environment. Today, Dow Plastics spends 15 cents for every R&D dollar on environmentally driven initiatives in the U.S. alone, and we expect that to climb. The real challenge for our industry is creating value from this investment in environmental compliance.

"Success in the future will be reflected more by applications development than by new materials. There are billions of pounds of opportunity for substitution of plastics for traditional materials. With recycling in mind, designs should be simple and easily separable into individual components.

"Most of the changes we will see in the year 2000 and beyond will be more incremental than quantum. Single-site metallocene catalysis, for example, represents the type of incremental changes that allow us to make improved families of polymers, different from those that preceded them."--L. Dennis McKeever, vice president of R&D, Dow Plastics, a business group of The Dow Chemical Co.

Toward total control

"The latest progress in catalyst science now makes it possible to entirely control the design of the polypropylene molecule and to incorporate, in-situ, many different comonomers. This capability should open new markets to propylene-based polymers.

"The euphoria of the late '80s has generated excess capacity in the world. The next few years are going to be tough for the ones who are less than excellent at what they do."--Michel Paoli, marketing manager, Polypropylene, Exxon Chemical Co., Polymers Group, Americas.

Garlands to the swift

"Some say the plastics industry is mature, or at least approaching maturity. Basically, the industry will only be as mature as we allow it to be. The versatility of the technology continues to surprise us, with advances in materials, design, and processing opening wholly new windows of opportunity. Over the next decade, however, we will have to live up to our responsibilities regarding the life cycle of our materials. The industry today is relatively fragmented for dealing with the problem. We must do more in coordinated efforts.

"Speed will be the theme of the future. Customers will develop products faster, for substantially shorter life cycles. Cars, for example, now are developed on a four to five year cycle--one to two years will become common for many models. Inventories will be replaced by just-in-time systems of material movement. The time compression for quality delivery of materials and services will be just one of the increased pressures on suppliers.

"Winners will be determined not so much by vision as by execution, by who performs better on numerous levels. Ultimately, as there is more consolidation among end-users, the powerful combination of performance, productivity, and value will win. Ten years ago, customers did not understand the design advantages of plastics, relative to the traditional materials. They are more sophisticated now and will become even more so. The intensity of the battle for customers will rise. The victories will go to the swift."--Nigel Andrews, vice president and general manager, GE Plastics Americas.

Worldwide growth

"The U.S. market for engineering resins will continue growing at an average annual rate of about 5%, from some 1.6 billion lbs in 1990 to about 2.6 billion lbs by the year 2000. The worldwide market will grow at a similar rate, from 5 billion to over 8 billion lbs during the same period. Growth prospects are excellent because of the advent and proliferation of newer high performance resins, increasing sophistication and knowledge of alloying and blending technologies, and new CAE/CAD systems that enable engineers to visualize and design complex parts and mold tools more efficiently than ever before.

"The key issue is not raw material cost, but total finished part cost. Since

the penetration of plastics as metal replacements is currently estimated to be only about 15%, the growth prospects in this area are excellent."--Ben Nathanson, manager, New Business Development, Hoechst Celanese Corp.

Just the beginning

"The plastics industry is only on the threshold of a major thrust towards selectively combining plastics with other materials to provide more functional and cost-effective designs. In the coming years, hybrid technology will take many forms to promote imagination and synergism. Emphasis will be not so much on which material is better than another, but rather on how to utilize best the most favorable properties of each of them.

"Integrating plastics with metal in an injection molding tool to make a strong, lightweight car door is only one example. Plastics will be pushed to their design limits and then will form combinations to further boost capabilities. Polycarbonate's heat resistance already has been extended with specific grades, from 275|degrees~F to 400|degrees~F, for smaller envelope high-intensity lighting and medical applications. Future directions will include novel ways to apply the materials, such as development of polycarbonate films with special UV packages for coextrusion with other plastics to improve signage weatherability, and coatings for automotive glazing.

"Material selections for specific designs will become much more sophisticated so that no one material or family of materials will be a panacea. Experience, proven performance, and technical service will remain strong elements in the competitive mix. The expanded need to differentiate car designs through exterior styling changes, for example, will promote opportunities for numerous materials. In an inevitably even more competitive environment, RIM polyurethane, for one, will supplement its successful application history with new offerings that will fuel growth not only in automotive, but also in the agricultural, construction, electronic, industrial, and recreation markets.

"Globalization of design will become par for the course. Chlorine- and bromine-free plastic materials will continue to be 'internationalized,' with property baselines to meet the strictest requirements for environmentally acceptable flame retardance anywhere in the world."--Peter R. Mueller, vice president, Plastics Marketing, Miles Polymers Division.

Progress for polyolefins

"In the '90s, improved catalyst technology that will significantly increase the output of existing reactors and improve upon resin properties and quality, and new technology for copolymerization, alloying, and blending will greatly enlarge the applicability of polyolefins. New polyolefin engineering plastics, based on ethylene and propylene, will be introduced that will be more cost-effective for many applications than the benzene-based engineering plastics that have dominated the '70s and '80s. Also anticipated is a growing resurgence of technical interest in polyolefins produced in high-pressure reactors, with advantages in processing, clarity, and versatility for copolymerization beyond what low-pressure reactors can provide.

"With low-pressure reactors, systems are being developed for making high-density polyethylene in one reactor, another polyolefin in a separate reactor, and then blending them so that the distinction between linear low- and high-density polyethylenes will largely disappear in the '90s."--William Bowles, process research director, Quantum Chemical Corp.'s USI Division.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Society of Plastics Engineers, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Golden Anniversary Issue
Author:Wigotsky, Victor
Publication:Plastics Engineering
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Fifty years of plastics.
Next Article:Signs of recovery - a time for caution.

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