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Looking for low-cost plastics that still meet your application requirements? New software from IDES (Laramie, WY) should make them a whole lot easier to find. Called "Alternatives," this new software module runs as a part of IDES Prospector, a web-based materials database that contains engineering data on more than 53,000 grades of plastic from nearly 500 suppliers. And Design News readers can get a free one-month trial. To use the Alternatives, users simply select a material from the database and click on an icon next to its name. With that single click, the software then scours IDES's database for similar materials from a variety of large and small suppliers. The module considers ten common material property attributes when looking for a match. These include both mechanical and physical properties (see sidebar for complete list). The module also takes qualitative descriptions of product features—such as chemical resistance, toxicity, and odor—into account. The software ranks the alternative materials by how closely, as a percentage, each of their properties and features conforms to those of the starting plastic. Results are displayed as a simple bar chart showing an overall ranking, or average of the individual property deviations. Clicking on any bar, however, quickly brings up the individual property data. Users can additionally select up to five of the best alternatives for an in-depth, side-by-side comparison—including the ability to overlay their stress-strain curves on a single graph. While Alternatives usually comes up with one or more nearly identical matches on its first pass, the software does give users the option of refining their results. Users can weight individual properties or features—by marking them "must have," "like to have," or "don't need." The software then recalculates the rankings according to these user-specified weightings. Even with refinements the whole search process takes about five minutes. Nathan Potter, IDES's marketing manager, estimates that similar searches performed manually in Prospector would take more than half and hour and "require more plastics knowledge." Right now, the software does not return any per pound prices for the alternatives—though Potter says IDES has plans to add this information in future versions. But the software does give users a short-list of materials that will likely meet their engineering requirements. With that list in hand, they can comparison shop on their own or click on Prospector's web-based "sourcing" feature, which solicits price quotes from the material suppliers. As handy as the new software may be for new product development, Potter believes it will get an equal amount of attention from engineers trying to take cost out of mature products. "With a single click they can tell if there are less costly alternatives to their current plastics," he says. One early user, who did not wish to be named, did just that. An injection molder, this user currently buys $1.3 million/year of a nylon that costs $1.45/lb. Alternatives recently helped him identify a $0.90/lb polypropylene that not only meets the property requirements but also has a lower specific gravity than the original plastic for double dip-cost reduction worth roughly $600,000 a year. Scheduled for its official launch earlier this month, Product Alternatives is just one aspect of a new Prospector release. Other new features include common interface for Prospector and the company's Auto Spec databases as well as the ability to create user profiles with saved search criteria.
With a single mouse click, Alternatives software looks through more than 53,000 grades of plastic to come up with of materials with similar properties. The list can help engineers find for the lowest cost material that meets their application requirements.