News that GE wants to sell its plastics business is of interest to design engineers. In the past 25 years, engineering plastics suppliers, led in part by GE Plastics, have been important developers of exciting new designs for plastics, such as instrument panels and various business machinery. Rising raw materials costs (oil-related, primarily) have reduced the profitability of the business and made it a weak performer for high-flying GE. This was surely a tough pill for the company to swallow because famous CEO Jack Welch cut his teeth at GE plastics after graduation as a chemical engineer from the University of Massachusetts.
One personal anecdote shows the role GE Plastics has played in design development. I was having dinner many years ago with a man named Uwe Wascher who was a VP for GE Plastics. After a few drinks, he recalled his role in the development of Xenoy as the first ever-bumper material for a European car. Wascher, who is German and was based in Europe, said he sold the OEM on polycarbonate before testing had been fully completed. PC (developed by GE’S Dan Fox about the same time Bayer also discovered the polymer) was used on some prototype models, and was damaged by gasoline spills because of its poor chemical resistance. Washer set up a major research skunk works in GE corporate office in Europe. The 24/7 push—because the model was close to production—led to development of a PC/PBT polyester alloy known as Xenoy. The rest is history.
Wascher left GE several years ago, and probably has PR people with him when he has dinner with reporters these days.
As the 3D printing and overall additive manufacturing ecosystem grows, standards and guidelines from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Multiple players with multiple needs are also driving the role of 3DP and AM as enabling technologies for distributed manufacturing.
A growing though not-so-obvious role for 3D printing, 4D printing, and overall additive manufacturing is their use in fabricating new materials and enabling new or improved manufacturing and assembly processes. Individual engineers, OEMs, university labs, and others are reinventing the technology to suit their own needs.
For vehicles to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, three things must happen: customers must look beyond the data sheet and engage materials supplier earlier, and new integrated multi-materials are needed to make step-change improvements.
3D printing, 4D printing, and various types of additive manufacturing (AM) will get even bigger in 2015. We're not talking about consumer use, which gets most of the attention, but processes and technologies that will affect how design engineers design products and how manufacturing engineers make them. For now, the biggest industries are still aerospace and medical, while automotive and architecture continue to grow.
More and more -- that's what we'll see from plastics and composites in 2015, more types of plastics and more ways they can be used. Two of the fastest-growing uses will be automotive parts, plus medical implants and devices. New types of plastics will include biodegradable materials, plastics that can be easily recycled, and some that do both.
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