Do today’s engineers know plastics?

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

That question was posed to me by John Winzeler, president of Winzeler Gear, when I interviewed him for a September magazine feature on workforce development (Winzeler was featured in PT’s July On-Site). Winzeler, himself a degreed engineer and third generation manufacturer, lamented the fact that so few programs include plastics on the syllabus.


“Probably 95% of the engineering schools have no plastics in their curriculum,” Winzeler said, “yet 50% of every product out there is made of plastics.” That fact makes building out a skilled team of employees a very difficult task for companies like Winzeler.


“The whole idea of a technical workforce is an overwhelming challenge today,” Winzeler said, “and if you just look at what’s going on at school, plastics is getting like zero attention.”


Kevin Dailey, human resources director for custom molder and contract manufacturer Mack Molding’s Northern Division, also spoke with me for the article, laying out his company’s apprenticeship program and general outreach to area schools.  


While he didn’t address plastics specific training in engineering schools, he did say that new grads show a general technical aptitude, admitting many of the company’s interns are “more familiar with [plastics manufacturing] than we thought.”


“We get a little bit hung up on what we do,” Dailey said. “If you’ve done it for years you really think it’s more involved than it is, but the way the engineering schools in particular are training their students these days; they’re up to speed on the latest and greatest software, they have that aptitude, intuitive mindset, where they just pick things up very quickly.”


Noel Ginsburg, president and founder of Denver based custom molder and contract manufacturer Intertech Plastics, also spoke with me about the skills gap in industry, a problem his company has aggressively attacked. While I visited, he described how Intertech was dealing with a lack of plastics training in engineering programs.


“The other day that one of our engineering interns asked if he could work here during the school year,” Ginsburg said. “The answer was yes, and then our engineering manager said, ‘and if when you graduate you’ll come to work for us, we’ll put you through some plastics specific training.’”


That’s one way to make sure future product designers work from a plastics-design-for-manufacturability viewpoint. Trained in plastics or not, we still need more engineers, and only time will tell if STEM is the means to get them.


In a 2010 presentation at the International Conference on Technology Education Research, William Dugger, emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and a senior fellow at the International Technology Education Association, laid out some sobering statistics, noting that just 4 percent of American college graduates in 2003 majored in engineering compared to 13 percent of European students and 20 percent of Asian students.


In the presentation, Dugger quoted Rodger Bybee, former chair of the Science Expert Group for the Programme for International Student Assessment:


“For a society so deeply dependent on technology and engineering, we are largely ignorant about technology and engineering concepts and processes, and we have largely ignored this incongruity in our educational system.”


Maybe we’re finally catching on. 

A second chance for Cereplast and Metabolix

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

On July 20, bioplastic service ware manufacturer Trellis Earth Products announced it would soon begin operation at Cereplast’s former Seymour, Ind., production site. Trellis, which is based in Wilsonville, Ore., acquired the assets of Cereplast including production equipment, patents, inventory and trademarks as part of that company’s Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings.


On August 4, Metabolix announced an injection of capital. According to the company, $25 million of its securities were sold to “Jack W. Schuler, Oracle Investment Management, Inc., Birchview Capital, certain members of the Company's Board of Directors and executive management team, and other investors.”


The company, which grew out of research at MIT, is seeking to gain its footing after the February 2012 decision by its former owner, Archer Daniels Midland, to end its commercial alliance with the company.


The overall market continues to develop, with global demand for biobased and biodegradable plastics forecast to rise 19 percent per year to 950,000 metric tons in 2017, but apart from companies like Natureworks and Braskem, which have already made significant investments in production capacity, smaller players, despite the novelty of their technologies, face an uphill battle.


I visited Cereplast at its original production plant in Southern California, and the company took tremendous strides since then, but the pressure to produce as publicly traded company (which Metabolix also must deal with), has to be exceptionally difficult for a material start up. Metabolix always generated buzz at SPE's annual GPEC conference, but buzz doesn't always translate to revenue. The injection of cash upon becoming a public company is good, and necessary in many cases, but the day-to-day performance pressure is not.

Western Companies Step Up Patrols of Their Intellectual Property In China

By: Tony Deligio 16. July 2014

“The greatest transfer of wealth in history.”


That’s how General Keith Alexander, Commander of the United States Cyber Command and Director of the National Security Agency, describes the theft of intellectual property, according to a May 22 report from Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property.


Thus far in 2014, it seems that chemical and plastics companies, for one, are saying “enough,” particularly when it comes to IP theft by China, a country they’re increasingly partnering with as a means of gaining access to the massive local market.


This week, polyester manufacturer, INVISTA, announced that it had resolved a lawsuit against a Chinese engineer for what it called “misappropriation and infringement of trade secrets” relating to its purified terephthalic acid (PTA) technology, PTA being a key ingredient to PET, among other things.


INVISTA said that an employee of a Chinese engineering design company “misappropriated some of INVISTA’s proprietary information,” during one of INVISTA’s technology projects for a Chinese licensee. INVISTA in turn filed a lawsuit through the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court against the individual. The Wichita-based company won a number of concessions from the alleged IP thief, including that person:


  • Agreeing not to work in any job or activity in which he could use or disclose his knowledge of INVISTA’s PTA technology,”
  • Immediately and permanently ceasing any use or disclosure of INVISTA’s PTA technology
  • Returning INVISTA’s trade secret materials and disclosing all sources for the materials


INVISTA is not alone in accusing Chinese firms of stealing intellectual property, nor is it alone in pursuing legal recourse. On March 21, INEOS sued several Sinopec subsidiaries for what it called “misuse of trade secrets” relating to its acrylonitrile business.


In that case, INEOS, which claims its acrylonitrile business is No. 1 globally with a value of $3 billion and 5,000 employees worldwide, accused the perpetrators of “prolific building of Acrylonitrile copy plants in China,” an action it claimed “will destroy its business.”

INEOS says that Sinopec Ningbo Engineering Company has broken a long established technology agreement which, together with trade secret misuse by other Sinopec companies, has enabled development of a series of new world scale Acrylonitrile plants without INEOS agreement or consent.  


This case garnered press attention at the time because SINOPEC is a state-owned business, and INEOS’ action could have been taken as in indirect indictment of the Chinese government.


INEOS, however, quickly noted that it enjoyed “otherwise excellent relationships with Sinopec and with China,” and that it had “every confidence  that China has now developed an excellent system to protect intellectual property consistent with the fact that China now files more patents than any other count.”


It’s easy to appreciate the business pickle INEOS found itself in. On the company’s web site, the press release announcing the lawsuit against SINOPEC was sandwiched between two other releases detailing new partnerships with the state-owned company.


On March 5, Bloomberg reported on the case of Walter Liew, a consultant working with DuPont found guilty of selling titanium dioxide secrets to a Chinese chemical manufacturer:


Walter Liew, 56, a consultant who rose from a farm in Malaysia to earn $28 million from contracts with a Chinese company, was found guilty by federal jurors in San Francisco of 22 counts of economic espionage, trade secret theft, witness tampering and making false statements. He sold the secrets to China’s Pangang Group Co., a Chengdu-based chemical company building a 100,000 metric-ton-per-year plant to produce titanium dioxide, a white pigment with a global annual sales of $14 billion, prosecutors said.


These are not isolated examples.


China does not have a monopoly on IP theft, but, as the IP Commission report states, it has created an environment highly conducive to the practice, with not only the tacit acceptance of the government, who in theory would police that matter, but at times, its participation:


National industrial policy goals in China encourage IP theft, and an extraordinary number of Chinese in business and government entities are engaged in this practice. There are also weaknesses and biases in the legal and patent systems that lessen the protection of foreign IP. In addition, other policies weaken IPR, from mandating technology standards that favor domestic suppliers to leveraging access to the Chinese market for foreign companies’ technologies.


At times, the litigiousness of Western society, and in particular, the U.S., is lamented, but more legal actions in these cases in China, and a pursuit of justice by the Chinese courts, would be a good thing here. For Western companies to take the chance on investing in China, they’ll need to feel the rule of law applies to all parties, even ones with direct or indirect ties to the Chinese government. 

Can Additive Manufacturing Supply Keep Up With Demand?

By: Tony Deligio 8. July 2014

Calling the announcement “one of the most significant milestones in the history of the additive manufacturing industry” in a July 3 post, Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates sees GE Aviation’s decision to utilize additive manufacturing (AM) for all the fuel nozzles on its LEAP engines as game-changing vote of confidence in the process, noting:


A major corporation publically declared its confidence in AM for a demanding production application in a hostile and critical operating environment.


Should GE’s move convince other OEMs that AM is ready for production prime time in critical components, Caffrey believes the end result could tip AM’s supply and demand dynamic out of balance.


Let’s assume the GE fuel nozzle is only the first of many metal production parts launched in the near term, and more parts from the aerospace, medical, dental, jewelry, and (eventually) automotive sectors will follow. Can the AM industry meet this significant demand? 


Noting that EOS has received an order for 100 of its laser sintering systems just as a result of GE’s nozzle project, Wohlers takes the position that the budding industry will not be able to keep pace.


We believe that the metal AM supply chain—consisting of system manufacturers, material suppliers, and certified service providers—will not be able to keep pace with demand.


Global plastics processing machinery demand is expected to expand 7.0 percent annually through 2017 to $37.6 billion, according to a new RNR Market Research report, with 3D printing to lead the way. Noting that the technology would grow the fastest of any plastics processing equipment, albeit from a relatively small market base, the report saw several reasons be bullish about AM in plastics.


3D printers offer more flexibility in product design than traditional machines and will provide functional competition to injection molding equipment for custom-made parts, as well as in other low output and prototyping applications…advances in 3D printer technology and falling product prices will broaden the market for plastics processing machinery to include utilization by individual consumers.

Good Vibrations: Ultrasonic Technology Applied to Micro Molding

By: Tony Deligio 25. June 2014

Back in 2007, researchers at the Ascamm Technology Centre in Barcelona, Spain started investigating melting thermoplastics via ultrasonic energy. After proving out the process, the researchers considered possible commercial applications, according to Enric Sirera, who became sales director at Ultrasion, the commercial venture spun off in 2010 from Ascamm’s to commercialize the invention. 


“[The researchers] saw a market need for small parts, micro parts, including ones with higher aspect ratios,” Sirera explained. “They saw a commercial opportunity.” Ultrasion was created in 2010 as means of “designing, developing, and industrializing a machine surrounding this ultrasonic molding process.”


Ultrasion’s vision is to use ultrasonic waves to melt plastics prior to molding, as opposed to the shear and radiant heating used in the heater-band, reciprocating-screw, and barrel set up of traditional injection molding. By doing so, the researchers believed they could prepare only the required amount of material for each part versus bringing an entire barrel of material up to temperature, with the subsequent residence time and potential for degradation.


In their first crack at a ultrasonic-centered machine, the researchers constructed a prototype press by taking a standard injection molding machine, removing the entire injection unit and substituting one of their design.


“It worked perfectly,” Sirera recalled, “it was great step forward. At that point, however, we realized that the hydraulics and the clamping force were over sized and over dimension for what we needed. So, we said, ‘Hey, let’s think about redesigning a new machine according to this process.’”


With the first prototype machine completed in 2010, the company hit the show circuit to begin promoting the technology, including stops in Germany at Fakuma and Orlando at NPE2012. Last year, Ultrasion participated in the K Show in Germany, as commercial sales began in earnest.


Today, Sirera notes there are 12 machines in the field, with seven running production and the rest involved in further research at universities and R&D centers. Those machines are spread throughout the U.S., U.K., Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain, working in medical, aerospace, and precision mechanics applications.


Key difference
Sirera notes that one key differentiator for Ultrasion’s molding technology (they drop the injection, more on that later), is how ultrasonic melting of the pellets lowers the material’s viscosity.


“This means at the same melting temperatures,” Sirera says, “the viscosity by ultrasonic heating drops down, leading to the possibility of molding at much lower pressure, with less stresses internally, as well as the ability to make the material flow into thinner, tinier geometries that previously had not been able to be filled.”


Instead of a traditional hopper-fed barrel and screw, Ultrasion machines feature a dosing unit, dispensing only the amount of material needed to be melted for each cycle. Once inside the dosing chamber, the resin is heated via ultrasonic waves, vibrating the plastic and creating spaces within its molecular structure. “When you create more space around the molecules,” Sirera explains, “you lower the viscosity. As the free volume increases, the viscosity drops down.”


In micro injection molding, Sirera notes that pressures can easily rise to 1200 bar and higher. With ultrasonic melting, however, those pressures drop down to the 300 to 500 bar range.


The Ultrasion machine is technically rated with a clamping force of 3 m.t., but even that description is overkill, according to Sirera. In production, he notes that  the Ultrasion machine typically uses from 1.5 to 2.2 m.t. of clamping force. As an added bonus, the elimination of heater bands, as well as hydraulic pumps and motors normally used to keep the clamp shut under high pressure, means that energy consumption for the Ultrasion is reduced by 85 to 90 percent compared to a standard injection molding machine.


Residence time
In a standard micromolding setup up, where a part might utilize a .1g shot and the machine has a 100g capacity barrel, a molder would have to go through 1000 shots to clear the barrel. “This can lead to big problems,” Sirera notes. In the Ultrasion design, the dosing unit handles the material at room temperature, and only as needed.


“Imagine a hopper with material at room temperature,” Sirera explains. “The machine stays at room temperature. As soon as we want to mold a part, we close the mold, dose raw material as pellets into the mold—using just the amount of material for that shot—and then the horn comes down, vibrates, and melts only the amount of material dosed into that shot.” Once melted, a plunger pushes the molten plastic into the tool cavity at much lower pressures.


“There’s no residence time at all, which means the machine can be started and stopped at any time,” Sirera says, adding that there are no purging operations either. If a material change is needed, the hopper is simply emptied and refilled.


Sirera says parts still have a runner and sprue, which can become outsized in micro molding, but here he notes Ultrasion still saves between 40 to 70 percent of the equivalent cold runner compared to traditional micro injection molding.

For the material, eliminating the dual stresses of thermal degradation caused by long residence times as well as injection under high pressure has had some interesting results.


Ultrasion has seen less change in the polymer’s molecular weight, helping materials retain mechanical properties, while the process also means the polymer chains “refreeze nicely”, according to Sirera, resulting in a stronger, more homogenous melt and part.


Apart from silicones, Sirera notes that the technology is suitable for all types of thermoplastics, including high-temperature materials like PEEK, PSU, LCP, and POM. In filled materials, or ones with additives, Ultrasion has also seen better dispersion and more homogeneity in the finished compounds and parts. At this time, maximum overall shot sizes are around 1.5 to 2 g, but could go bigger, to a point.


“If you ask me if some day will we make a bumper fascia using ultrasonic molding, I don’t think so,” Sirera says, before adding. “It’s too soon to tell.”


That doesn’t mean there aren’t big opportunities in small parts, however. “Mold geometries that had previously proven impossible are now possible,” Sirera says. “When we talk about design for manufacturing, now you have a new manufacturing technique that will allow you to try new geometries. We don’t know what the limits are yet, but we envision a huge opportunity.”

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