DN Staff

May 22, 1995

17 Min Read
From Pilgrims' progress to plastics advancements

Little did the Pilgrims know when they landed on Plymouth Rock that they would help nurture one of the leading industries in the New England region. That industry: Plastics!

Spreading from the scenic rolling Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut and along America's Technology Highway west of Boston and on down to little Rhode Island nest enclaves of plastic producers, compounders, and tool and mold makers. In Massachusetts alone, nearly 400 companies employ more than 18,000 people in plastic-related work, according to the latest figures compiled by the state's Office of Business Development.

Catering to this industry are some of the better universities and provincial associations in the U.S. For instance, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell you will find a plastics engineering program "concerned with the synthesis and modification of polymeric materials and their conversion to useful end products," explains Executive Officer Stephen Orroth. Since its startup in 1954, more than 1,700 graduates have been employed by polymer industries throughout the world.

Attesting to the success of this program is a member of the Class of '76, Brett Blaisdell, a plastic engineer at Eastman Kodak. "Lowell graduates have typically been able to contribute at a high and steady level immediately upon entering the work force," says Blaisdell. "Currently, six out of about 50 engineers in our department are Lowell graduates."

Likewise, over the past 30 years, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has established an enviable reputation for its wide-ranging work in polymers. A Materials Research Laboratory-the only one in the U.S. dedicated solely to polymers-opened at the Amherst campus in 1973. The Center of Industry Research on Polymers followed in 1980; then the state designated the campus a Polymer Center of Excellence in 1985, and, in 1990, the university became the site of a new National Polymer Research Center.

Additional support for the industry comes from the Berkshire Plastics Network headquartered in Pittsfield, with nearly 90 members and associates. Aided by a $200,000 state grant, the network has promoted its activities primarily on behalf of its small-business enterprises.Then there's the North Central Massachusetts Plastics Council, located in Leominster, with some 15 members. The council also sponsors the very successful Mass Plastics tradeshow every 18 months.

Where the customer takes center stage

This year's Technology Tour began in Pittsfield, home of GE Plastics. Like all of GE's 22 or so business groups, GE Plastics is on a mission. "We will constantly strive to be the world leader in providing the highest value materials and services to our customers," reads the mission outlined by Gary L. Rogers, president and CEO, and printed on the back of every GE Plastics business card.

Beginning with Lexan(R) polycarbonate resin, GE Plastics has built its reputation on engineering resins. Other members of the stable include: Cycolac(R) ABS resin, Noryl(R) modified polyphenylene oxide-based resin, Prevex(R) phenylene ether resin, Valox(R) PBT resin, Ultem(R) polyetherimide resin, Supec(R) polyphenylene sulfide resin, and Geloy(R) ASA resin.

Each of these polymers continues to evolve, many spawning advanced copolymers, alloys, and composites: Xenoy(R) thermoplastic alloy, Cycoloy(R) ABS/PC resin, and Noryl GTX resin. Add Lomod(R) thermoplastic elastomers, Azdel Technopolymer Structures, Engineering Structural Foam resins, and a growing family of sheet and film products, and it's clear that GE offers a broad and versatile engineering plastics product line.

Customer focus. But providing a growing list of materials does not assure that a company will continue to "grow" its share of the market. That's why GE places increased emphasis on customer satisfaction. And, like its product line, services provided to customers continue to grow.

The latest in a recent "line" of customer aids is GE Select, which debuted at this year's National Design Engineering Show in Chicago. This comprehensive database covers the diverse family of GE polymers, plus complete properties and engineering data on over 500 commercially available resin grades. The two-disk program comes in Microsoft(R)-Windows and Macintosh(R) formats. Engineers can also download the data directly from the Internet.

"The data is presented in an easy-to-use format designed to help engineers maximize material potential, optimize usage, and eliminate costly over-design," Spyros Michail told this reporter as he watched the GE design engineer who developed the program put it through its paces.

Help doesn't stop here. GE has set up "industry" teams with special expertise to solve customer problems, or simply smooth the way for a new design. These teams not only can draw upon the knowledge found within the plastics operations, but from throughout all of the company's business sectors:

Commercial development centers in California, Georgia, and Michigan (said to be the largest commitment to the auto industry of any materials supplier headquartered outside Detroit), and at other strategic locations throughout the world.

  • A four-acre Polymer Processing Development Center dedicated to process development for large, functional parts on a "previously unattainable scale."

  • And one of the most sophisticated corporate R&D centers in the world located in nearby Schenectady, NY.

To better illustrate how this relationship works, let's look at an innovative door module that consolidates 61 parts into one. GE Plastics and Delphi Interior and Lighting Systems announced the patented "next-generation" door hardware module, called the Super Plug(TM), at this year's SAE annual conference in Detroit.

"Through a close working relationship that provided seamless integration with Delphi, we studied everything from material specification and manufacturing techniques to design assistance and assembly ergonomics," says Mike Webster, director of General Motors Business Development at GE Plastics in Southfield, MI. "The Super Plug is a perfect example of the way we like to work closely with our customers to assist them in their development of applications and systems that are forward-thinking."

The overall project goal: develop a system that could meet an OEM-specified target for mass and parts reductions, part cost reductions, investment savings, and a reduction in development time. Delphi refined the system and proposed a unique application of an innovative manufacturing process (gas-injection molding) for the hardware. At the same time, GE Plastics initiated development at the material level, custom-compounding a new Xenoy PC/polyester, a 30% glass-fiber blend proprietary to Delphi and the Super Plug application. Some of the results:

Potential part number reductions of 75% over conventional door technology.

  • Overall system warranty reduction of at least 25% due to fewer components and interfaces.

  • Total systems cost reduction of 5-10% through parts consolidation.

  • Potential rejected parts-per-million reduction of 96% for all sub-systems.

Such activity fits the mold of GE's Chairman of the Board and CEO John F. Welch, Jr. He puts it this way: "Using 100% of the minds and passion of 100% of our people in implementing the best ideas from everywhere in the world is a formula, we believe, for endless excitement and growth and endless renewal."

Stretching the limits of elastomers' future

A short journey from the Design News offices in Newton up Route 128, America's high-tech highway, brought me to the headquarters of DSM Thermoplastic Elastomers Inc. in Leominster. This subsidiary of DSM Elastomers, which, in turn, is a division of DSM of Heerlen, The Netherlands, contributes a growing chunk of the corporation's $6 billion in annual sales.

The subsidiary is known for the production of thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPVs) that combine the elasticity of thermoset rubbers with the processing advantages of thermoplastics. The result: the Sarlink(R) Series of TPVs, all available in general-purpose, food-contact, and flame-retardant grades. They include:

Sarlink Series 1000-Excellent resistance to oil, fuel, and abrasion, plus superior bonding.

  • Sarlink Series 2000-Low permeability, high damping, excellent flexibility at low temperatures.

  • Sarlink Series 3000-Multi-purpose, high flow, resilient, weatherable, and excellent compression set.

The Sarlink polypropylene-based TPVs were first developed and produced by Polysar Ltd., Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. NOVA Corp. of Alberta purchased the line in 1989 and moved production to Leominster in 1990. DSM acquired the business in 1992, hence its present name.

A recent expansion included a multi-million-dollar automated manufacturing line and extensive enhancements in R&D facilities. For added design help, however, DSM Thermoplastics Elastomers can call on the world-wide resources of its corporate R&D network, which includes some 1,500 people.

Such state-of-the-art operations encouraged DSM to introduce the 4000 Series of Sarlink TPVs, enabling the company to make greater strides into the automotive industry. Experts predict that over the next decade this industry segment will see the highest level of growth ever in under-the-hood use of plastics.

The 4000 Series product offers a strong alternative to thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) for such demanding applications as rank and pinion boots, hot-air ducts, suspension boots, and cable coating, says Malcolm Thompson, sales and marketing manager. He points out that TPVs are an ideal replacement for EPDM, neoprene, and other mid-performing rubbers, as well as self-skinning urethanes, and adds that they provide "soft touch" characteristics for interior comfort.

Two recent additions to the 4000 line include 4139D and 4149D (39 Shore D and 49 Shore D, respectively). For wire and cable applications, expect to see new lines that push the RTI rating from 75C up to the 90-l00C range. Also watch for increased use of soft-touch treatments that include overmolding glass-reinforced nylon in an adhesiveless operation, says Thompson.

"DSM is making great strides, particularly in the automotive industry, by providing security of supply, and long-term price stability, with an ever-broadening range of Sarlink 4000 products," Thompson stresses. This philosophy should give DSM the ability to grow even stronger in other market segments.

A delight in doing the difficult

Travel south from Leominster to Holden and you will come upon the headquarters of ReedSpectrum. Its business is really pretty simple: color. As a result, ReedSpectrum has become a leading supplier of color and additive concentrates to the plastics industry for packaging, appliance, electronics, medical, film, sheet, furniture, and fibers applications.

Founded in 1948, the division of Sandoz Chemicals Corp. not only provides custom-designed concentrates for thermoplastic polymers, where close tolerance, critical match, and enhanced physical properties prove crucial, but for all generic resin bases, including high-performance alloys and blends. The masterbatcher is particulary proud of its recent ISO 9001-1987 certification.

Color pioneer. Right after World War II, Milton Sheftel started the company under the name of Reed Plastics. He was involved in a lot of plastics projects related to the war efforts at that time. This work gave birth to the plastics compounding business.

Sheftel and his fellow workers ran the business like a manufacturing lab, taking particular delight in doing the really difficult. They cut their teeth on nylon, when it was a new material. This, in turn, led to the buyouts of other color concentrate companies: C.B. Edwards of Minneapolis, part of the Cookson company of England, and Hammond Plastics, located in Worcester, MA, formed by one of Sheftel's friends. And, when the younger generation of the Sheftel family showed little interest in continuing the tradition, Sandoz Chemicals purchased the Reed enterprises in 1988 as an entry to the U.S. with its masterbatch business. Sandoz added Spectrum Colors of Kalamazoo, MI, to the fold in 1993.

Close to the industry. Such commitments, new and old, have enabled the company to work closely with Dow, DuPont, BP Chemical, Amoco, and other major resin producers while they are developing an innovative new resin. For example, a concentrate in the High Performance Polymer Series was made specifically for Amoco's Amodel(R) PPA resins.

Also, with the continuing emphasis on "green theme" issues, ReedSpectrum recently introduced numerous heavy-metal-free standard product lines under the ReedLite(R) name. "We are the undisputed leader in the R&D of such alternatives," boasts Wayne Prescott, director of sales and marketing. One recent ReedLite product, the Special Effects Series, lets users give any product a heavy dose of pizzazz-granites, flecks, speckles, edgeglows, and mottled highlights.

Value added. But ReedSpectrum does more than make color concentrates. "We help bring more value to the product," interjects Prescott. "In fact, we devote half of our R&D budget to the customer with non-color additives."

Most of all it's the people who bring the added value, Prescott is quick to note. "They are constantly developing ways to increase plastics' performance."

As for the future, Prescott sees "Down Engineering" as playing a major role in the way products are designed. This trend, he forecasts, is going to do nothing but increase the concentrate business.

"Where we originally had pre-color being sold to the IBMs and Hewlett-Packards for engineering resins designed to last for a lifetime, along comes competition," Prescott explains. "Now you can buy computers for one-half or one-tenth of what they used to cost," he continues. "So, what they have done is to think in terms of going away from ABS to polystyrene, for example. Or adding fillers to commodity plastics so that they act like engineering resins. As a result, they are switching from pre-colors to natural resins, plus color concentrates."

One call/one manager problem solving

Slip over the Massachusetts border on Interstate 95 into Rhode Island and in no time you arrive at the headquarters of Teknor Apex in Pawtucket. This privately held company, founded in 1924 as a tire distributor and retreader, now has six product divisions with operations facilities across the U.S.

The Plastics Div., the object of my tech tour, is a leading producer of flexible vinyl and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) compounds. These compounds meet or exceed requirements of UL, CSA, FDA, and other government and military specifications.

Chief among the compounds produced by this facility are those for wire and cable, footwear, building and construction, packaging, medical, toys, appliances, automotive, and electronic applications. They include:

Elexar(R)-Kraton G-based compounds specifically designed for wire and cable uses as a result of a licensing agreement with Shell Chemical.

  • Flexalloy(R)-Compounds based on high-molecular-weight PVC resins.

  • Flexite(R)-Compounds based on styrene block copolymers now under tests.

  • Telcar(R)-As the result of a purchase from BF Goodrich in 1980, TPE compounds based on blends of olefins and rubbers.

  • Tekron(R)-Kraton G-based compounds for medical, food contact, and general-purpose applications, again as a result of the Shell license.

  • Uniprene(R)-And just recently out of the labs, dynamically vulcanized thermoplastic compounds based on olefins and rubbers.

In addition, the division produces several specialty products. Among them: conductive, anti-static, and gamma- and lipid-resistant compounds; alloys of nitrile rubber, polyurethane, and other specialty blends; chlorinated polyethylene compounds; and calendered PVC films in standard and custom formulations.

Customer oriented. To better serve its customers, the division is segmented into five market-development groups: wire and cable, speciality, automotive, non-toxic, and general-purpose compounds.

Right now, the company is making a major push to replace EPDM materials with TPE products in the automotive arena, led by Charles E. Gates, industry manager for automotive compounds. Replacements already include such components as convoluted dust boots for struts, door conduits, and rack-and-pinion applications.

However, Gates is especially excited about a new HVAC blower-motor developed by ITT Automotive for GM 1995.50 mid-size models that mounts under the dash. Teknor's contribution is an insert-molded, Shore 30 hardness Tekron TPE ring on the motor's base.

"One of the features of this is that it replaces a thermoset," Gates explains. "What they used to do is to bolt the thermoset gasket for assembly on the motor's flange. This resulted in a lot of misalignments and disassembly problems. So, with ITT, we developed this soft styrenic that has exhibited excellent compression set, low durometer, the ability to absorb vibration and noise, and can be recycled. This solution not only improved the motor's quality, but has cut down the production cycle time considerably for added labor savings. We hope to take this across to other General Motors cars."

Over the past 2.50 years, Teknor has supplied the material for the driver-side airbag cover at GM's Delphi operations. According to Gates, one particular compound is provided in 23 different colors that are all 100% color matched and have retention requirements of 15 years.

"Our goal is to become a diversified company and offer our customers one-stop shopping," says Robert C. Billig, the division's vice president. "We want to get in at the design level and get on the print." At the rate Teknor Apex is responding to this challenge, this goal should not take long to reach.

Removing maintenance issues and obstacles

Head south and east another 35 miles or so and you arrive at the doorstep of the Furon Advanced Polymers Division's Dixon facility in Bristol, RI. And, unlike most of the other companies on this tech tour, this company uses almost all of the compounded materials it turns out to produce parts, especially high-performance bearings.

Dixon lays claim to being one of the world's largest processors of materials and components in fluoropolymers and high-performance plastics. Since 1876, its success has come in solving engineering design problems. The solutions reached? Very often proprietary. "When engineers work with us," says Louis P. Cirillo, manager of product applications, "they get tough problems solved, and products that work better."

The scope of Dixon's business embraces both custom and stock materials and parts. It spans the mechanical, chemical, electrical, and data-processing industries.

"Our commitment to R&D is clearly illustrated in our early work with PTFE," Cirillo continues. "In 1952, we greatly enhanced PTFE's wear-resistant properties. This new compound became the first of a large family of high-performance Rulon(R) bearing materials. The material needs no lubrication, has a low coefficient of friction, and offers exceptional wear and corrosion resistance."

Engineers might want to consider Rulon 142 for linear bearings that can improve the performance of sliding surfaces in a variety of machinery. Then there is Rulon 448, the veneer dryer bearing material that "bears up longer under heat and wear," especially when the application involves thermal shock. And Rulon 641 "provides a health advance" in food and drug contact bearings by overcoming some of the limited-temperature shortcomings of UHMWPE, or the less acceptable wear properties of virgin PTFE at high temperatures.

Cirillo was particularly enthusiastic about a new Rulon product, Ultraliner(R) J, designed for standard-size, sleeve-bearing structures with bronze wire-mesh backing that's about to hit the market. The material boasts these properties: temperature range from -400 degrees to +500 degrees F, maximum continuous PV of 20,000, maximum static load of 10,000, 400 speed at no load, optimum shaft hardness of Rockwell C35, coefficient of friction of 0.1 to 0.3, and a thermal conductivity of 5-6 x 10-5. Cirillo predicts the material will be ideal for robotics and assembly-line applications.

Dixon's latest generation of advanced polymers, Meldin(R), combines the properties of polyimides with thermoplastic processing and compounding features. For instance, the Meldin 3000 Series includes five "true polyimide" formulations that can be injection-molded into customized finished parts that require no machining. They can operate at up to 550 degrees F continuous, while retaining an impressive level of physical properties.

Furon CEO J. Michael Hagan has set a goal for the company-20% of total sales will be derived from products that did not exist in the previous five years. Rulon Ultraliner should help the Dixon facility to realize that goal. But there are more changes on the way.

"We will abandon the traditional divisional alignment," Hagan adds. "Instead, the firm will concentrate on our customers through Customer Focus Teams. Each team will be made up of all the functional and technological resources needed to help our customers achieve their goals. This organization is so flat, that only two decision points exist between the customer and the president."

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