When someone has an original idea in plastics, they often seek a patent.

When someone has an original idea in plastics, they often seek a patent. If it's a good idea that may be broadly useful, the inventor may offer it for license. And if it's a really good idea, it will stimulate an eruption of imitators. We have all seen what can happen next: lawsuits, threats of financial penalties, dueling press releases, and potential customers scared off by the fuss. Or, there is the happier scenario in which the competing parties sit down together and work out a licensing agreement.

The recent K 2001 show in Dusseldorf presented examples of both scenarios. They involved two of the most fertile innovations of recent decades. One was gas-assist injection molding. I have rarely seen a new plastics concept catch fire so quickly in the imaginations of so many processors—that is, not until microcellular foam molding repeated the phenomenon in the last few years. Many of you may recall the bitter legal wrangles over gas injection in the 1980s that kept many interested molders on the sidelines until the dust settled. Fortunately, microcellular foam may be spared such a fate.

Both processes were widely displayed at K 2001. In an eerie echo of the past, one of the contenders in the gas-injection battles of the '80s was said to be stalking the halls in Dusseldorf, ordering some exhibitors to turn off their gas-assist molding demonstrations or face legal consequences. Concurrently, two show exhibitors announced that they had peacefully settled a potential conflict over microcellular foam technology. Trexel Inc., developer of the popular MuCell process, arrived at a licensing agreement with Demag Ergotech, whose Ergocell process is the first competitor to emerge in this field.

David Bernstein, president and CEO of Trexel explained why his firm chose to accommodate, rather than fight, a competing approach: "Trexel supports the idea that customers should have alternative equipment solutions for implementing the microcellular foam process." He added that "the market should decide" on the relative merits of the two approaches. "The last thing we should do is use patents to impede technical progress in the market."