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.”

From pipeline to pellet: Shale gas pushes petrochemical projects forward

By: Tony Deligio 18. June 2014

On June 13, the first barrels of ethane extracted during oil production at North Dakota’s Bakken Shale play were utilized by NOVA Chemicals at its Joffre, Alberta complex.


On June 17, Chevron Phillips Chemical hosted a groundbreaking for the polyethylene units at its U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC) Petrochemicals Project with polyethylene production slated for Baytown and Old Ocean, Texas.


NOVA is utilizing ethane derived from natural gas at Hess Corp.’s Tioga, North Dakota plant, which is transported into Alberta via the Vantage Pipeline. That pipeline has an initial design capacity of 40,000 barrels/day but is expandable to greater than 60,000 barrels/day.


“Ethane extracted from associated gas produced from Bakken Shale is expected to be a growing and stable feedstock supply source for the Alberta petrochemical industry.”


NOVA has already utilized natural gas from additional alternative outlets. In the first quarter, it applied ethane extracted from off-gas produced at Alberta oil sands, while Marcellus Shale basin based ethane became “a regular feedstock” at its Corunna, Ontario cracker, the company noted in first quarter earnings released on May 1.


In that statement, the company said it expects Joffre to be at nameplate capacity, north of 1 billion pounds, with plans to transition up to 100% natural gas liquids later this summer. At that time, the company reported a more than 30% increase in profits compared to the first quarter of 2013, citing increased operating profits and higher margins, specifically in its polyethylene segment.


"The introduction of Bakken Shale-based ethane into the feedstock diet at Joffre marks an important milestone in the diversification of our ethane sources for the region and our NOVA 2020 strategy to capitalize on North American demand,” stated Todd Karran, NOVA Chemicals Acting CEO and CFO.


On June 12, Chevron Phillips Chemical announced the successful commissioning and start-up of what it calls “the world’s largest” on-purpose 1-hexene plant. That unit has capacity for 250,000 m.t. (551 million lb).


Here too, the influence of shale was cited as real-live production begins:


"Our investment to expand 1-hexene production is due in part to Texas’ growth as a major international hub for the petrochemical industry and the increased supply of competitive feedstocks in the U.S. from the development of shale resources,” said Pete Cella, CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical.

With shale-gas-sourced pellets entering, or soon to enter the market, the next question becomes: Will North American processors see a pricing benefit from feedstock-advantaged polyolefins, or will the cost benefts only go to producers bottom lines?


Chevron Phillips Chemical's projects by the numbers:

  • Location: Cedar Bayou Chemical Complex in Baytown, Texas
  • Annual Capacity: 250,000 m.t. (551,000,000 lb)
  • Technology: third* plant to utilize Chevron Phillips Chemical’s proprietary selective on-purpose 1-hexene technology, which produces comonomer grade 1-hexene from ethylene.

*Qatar Chemical Company Ltd.’s (Q-Chem) facility in Mesaieed, Qatar, and Saudi Polymers Company plant in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia are the other two.


Chevron Phillips, U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC) Petrochemicals Project

  • Where: Cedar Bayou plant, Baytown, Texas, and Old Ocean, Texas
  • What:  1.5 million m.t./year (3.3 billion lb/year) ethane cracker in Baytown, and two 500,000 m.t./year (1.1 billion lb/year) capacity polyethylene facilities in Old Ocean, Texas


Ed. Note: But wait, there's more!


This morning ExxonMobil Chemical announced the launch of its multi-billion dollar expansion of its Baytown, Texas operation. Per the company:


The steam cracker will have a capacity of up to 1.5 million tons per year and provide ethylene feedstock for downstream chemical processing, including processing at two new 650,000 tons per year high performance polyethylene lines at the company's Mont Belvieu plastics plant.

Climbing like a gecko thanks to nature-inspired molded silicone pads

By: Tony Deligio 11. June 2014

The gecko’s unique feet, which can scale smooth, vertical surfaces without surface tension, attracted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Z-Man program, which seeks to give U.S. soldiers “maximum flexibility for maneuvering and responding to circumstances.”


A “novel polymer microstructure technology” was developed for DARPA by the Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., and built into paddles that allowed a 218-lb man, carrying a 50-lb pack, to go up and then down a 25-ft sheer glass wall, “with no climbing equipment other than a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles.”


In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society, the Draper scientists describe their advance as a “wedge-shaped gecko-like synthetic adhesive that exhibits several gecko-like properties simultaneously.” These include:


  • Zero force at detachment
  • High ratio of detachment force to preload force
  • Non-adhesive default state
  • Ability to maintain performance while sliding, even after thousands of cycles


“Individual wedges independently detach and reattach during sliding, resulting in high levels of shear and normal adhesion during drag,” the paper notes. They keep the stickiness too, retaining 67% of the initial adhesion and 76% of initial shear after 30,000 “attachment/detachment cycles” without cleaning.


The gecko-like pads were molded from a silicone, polydimethylsiloxane, using an epoxy (SU-8 photoresist) mold in a lithography process.


After the molds were created, silicone-based elastomers were cast under vacuum, spun to a desired backing layer thickness, heat cured and pulled out of the mold by hand.


Not exactly automated, and not a production tool by any stretch. The researchers noted that the molds typically lasted for only 10 “cast-and-peel” cycles before “cracking”, “delaminating” or “clogging” due to residual polymers left in the cavities. Time for some P-20 tool steel and a mold-release agent, perhaps?

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