Plastics made from sustainable resources, or plants, are at a tipping point, according to several speakers at special session at the annual technical conference (Antec) of the Society of Plastics Engineers in Milwaukee, WI. According to one research study cited, 40 percent of bioplastics will be used in durable applications in 2011, compared to just 2 per cent today. In the United States, in particular, plastics made from crops, usually corn, are mostly targeted for disposable packaging. As I’ve blogged before, that’s a joke since there are virtually no composting facilities that could handle the biodegradable packaging. The argument works OK for plastic bags that are thrown in the ocean or beside highways. But that’s hardly a reason to develop a new industry. Speakers at the SPE Antec, however, made the point that the argument is shifting from a solid waste viewpoint to a carbon footprint orientation. As a result, some experts feel demand will grow for “bioplastics” because of its potentially favorable position in the global warming debate. Japan has a law requiring greater use of bioplastics over the years, and Toyota among others has embraced the goals. The case is gaining a little strength as oil prices soar. It’s still a tough row to hoe, however. One reason is that bioplastics lack adequate mechanical properties for durable applications, such as cars. Toyota is blending bioplastic with oil-based plastic to boost properties. The other issue is that bioplastic will be significantly more expensive than oil-based plastic, even with sky-high oil prices. Efforts in the past to develop alternates have always collapsed when oil prices dropped. The other big obstacle is the feedstock problem. Use of corn in the United States has hiked food prices. At the Antec, a few experts argued that the real solution will be a switch to biomass that has no food value.
Siemens and Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology have achieved a faster production process based on selective laser melting for speeding up the prototyping of big, complex metal parts in gas turbine engines.
BMW has already incorporated more than 10,000 3D-printed parts in the Rolls-Royce Phantom and intends to expand the use of 3D printing in its cars even more in the future. Meanwhile, Daimler has started using additive manufacturing for producing spare parts in Mercedes-Benz Trucks.
SABIC's lightweighting polycarbonate glazing materials have appeared for the first time in a production car: the rear quarter window of Toyota's special edition 86 GRMN sports car, where they're saving 50% of its weight compared to conventional glass.
Design engineers play a big role in selecting both suppliers and materials for their designs. Our most recent Design News Materials Survey says they continue to be highly involved, in some ways even more than the last time we asked to peek inside their cubicles.
Daihatsu is one of the first carmakers to customize car exteriors using 3D printing's mass customization capabilities. Effect Skins -- small exterior bumper and fender panels in different colors and textures -- can be ordered for its Copen convertible.
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