Plastics' next push: the durable goods market

Cleereman founded the Materials Engineering Center in 1985. Prior to that he served as research manager of Dow's Thermoplastics Polymer Applications Development group. He also held positions as group leader and project manager in Plastics Technical Service and Development, and as a project leader for cellular plastics in the Central Research facility. Before joining Dow, Cleereman was employed as a design engineer for a heavy equipment manufacturer and a development engineer with Rubbermaid. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technology University.

Engineering plastics has so far failed to make a major inroad into the durable goods marketplace. Design News asked Robert J. Cleereman, global director for the Materials Engineering Center at Dow Chemical, why this is the case, and, more importantly, how design engineers might benefit from making the switch from wood and steel to plastics.

Design News: How big of a market are we talking about?

Cleereman: There is no question in my mind that the current U.S. durable goods market has the potential to use a much larger amount of plastics. How much? Assuming a $1 per pound cost for the resin, the actual market is roughly $100 billion.

Q: How do you propose to unlock this market?

A: Essentially, it requires a combination of education, plastics engineering expertise, and unmet needs. Plastics are very effective materials for durable goods when the entire product's design and manufacturing system is subject to change. Product engineers control the product system, and it's here that the greatest opportunity lies. Generally, these engineers are comfortable with their current, traditional materials-based systems. As a result, they are unwilling to overturn everything to reinvent their products in plastics. When a situation arises outside the incumbent system's capabilities, however, plastic systems have a chance.

Q: What was the original plastics development toolbox?

A: A tremendous amount of work and effort was expended gaining and understanding the chemistry of polymers, how to produce them with quality and predictability, and how to fabricate them. Comparatively, very little effort was spent developing product designs that incorporated plastic materials' functional attributes.

For example, take the plastic shampoo bottle. Why buy injury-prone glass when a plastic look-alike is available for nearly the same cost? Re-engineering the shampoo bottle was unnecessary.

For the most part, these types of opportunities are no longer available. Therefore, the market that remains for plastic substitution is durable goods. Here, plastic's obvious functional attributes are lacking when compared with traditional materials, and piece-for-piece or look-alike systems are not cost-effective.

Q: What would it take to increase plastic's share of this market?

A: The key has already been touched on--unmet needs, coupled with a comprehensive plastic engineering skill set. Government product mandates, such as safety, and global competition will help provide the unmet needs issue. Skill-set development will require a combination of formal schooling that might encompass accreditation requirements that include alternative materials engineering, as well as on-the-job skill growth.

Q: Isn't cost the biggest drawback in trying to replace traditional materials with plastics?

A: Plastics cost much more than traditional materials on a relative stiffness (modulus of elasticity) basis. In fact, steel and wood provide about ten times more stiffness per dollar than any plastic. Therefore, the immediate response is, "Yes, cost is the biggest drawback to plastics substitution for traditional materials." If the product system forces plastics into the same role that traditional materials fill, they will lose.

Fortunately, plastics have some intrinsic functional attributes that can offset this stiffness cost penalty. The two big ones are free aesthetics and net shape processability. The impact of the former is much lower cost appearance features; the latter allows parts consolidation, which can drastically reduce manufacturing costs and improve performance and quality. The combination of these features can more than offset the strength cost penalty, but only if the product design manufacturing system takes advantage of them.

Q: What market areas would you push in an attempt to put plastics on the spec sheets?

A: I'd start with designs that include complex, lightweight, aesthetic goods. A consumer or government mandate to create a need to rethink these designs would help bring this about. Then, you would have to demonstrate how plastics, from a total systems perspective, can be used as a cost-effective replacement.



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