You can never get enough of a good thing – or so it would seem, based on the survey responses of plastics professionals asked recently about their resin-related wants and needs.
While 81 percent of the 813 respondents to the DuPont/Plastics News “Plastics Industry Trends” survey – conducted by email in February 2015 – said that today’s resin portfolio is “sufficient” or “somewhat sufficient” to meet current product development needs, they ranked thermal resistance (17 percent), durability and structural capabilities (14 percent each) as those properties for which they most desire enhancements.
Asked to rank their technology requests for polymer property enhancements, 57 percent of respondents said they want to see further polymer mechanical property improvements, followed by gains in recycle technology (42 percent), processing enhancements to improve productivity (35 percent), multimaterial technologies and 3D printing (31 percent each).
Meanwhile, the “environment and sustainability” tied with the “competitive global environment” (15 percent each) as the top industry concern among respondents, followed closely by “unstable oil prices.”
David Dean, DuPont Packaging & Industrial Polymers research and development director, noted “the attributes that people say they value today are the ones they would like to see enhanced. I believe that tells us we are on the right trajectory from the perspective of our R&D efforts.” Dean summarized the findings that ranked structural capabilities, durability and thermal resistance as the most valued material attributes as indicating that users want “more robustness” in their materials.
In an April 24 phone interview, Dean said that DuPont continues to focus a lot on multilayer films, as it works to downgauge such products while retaining good puncture resistance. He also said the Wilmington, Del.-based chemicals and plastics giant is putting a lot of effort into developing better barrier resins.
“Near term,” Dean said, “it’s more about incremental improvements [than about inventing entirely new resin families]. We need to get the chemistry right, and the cost.”
When it comes to enhanced material structural capabilities and durability, composites are a key, according to Jeffrey Sternberg, DuPont’s automotive technology director. In an April 27 phone interview from Wilmington, Sternberg said he sees significant opportunity and growth in the area of carbon fiber thermoplastic composites, or mixtures of glass-fiber and carbon-fiber thermoplastic composites. Most composites today, of course, are based on thermoset composites.
“Thermosets have certain advantages,” he said, “but they also have some disadvantages, as well, around cycle time and things like that.” And he noted that thermoplastic-based composites could allow for improved recyclability – addressing another topic that ranked high among survey respondents.
“It requires some additional process development, of course, and probably some infrastructure, but I think the potential is greater there,” Sternberg said, referring to TP composites. DuPont is already busy in this area, having developed its “Vizilon TPC” thermoplastic composite, which French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen is testing in a side impact beam (see this June 2013 European Plastics News story).
The Vizilon beam – whose composite technology is based on DuPont’s Zytel® nylon 66 material – is said to offer a 40 percent weight reduction vs. the original beam made from ultra-high strength steel.
Sternberg acknowledged that when it comes to a glass-fiber/carbon-fiber mixed filler thermoplastic composite, “that is still more in the R&D phase.
Addressing the point that nearly a third of respondents express interest in improved multimaterial technologies, Sternberg said he sees a lot of effort going into joining technology. Many automakers are using mixed materials to construct their chassis and bodies-in-white, and joining these dissimilar materials is a real challenge.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of development in the next few years about how to join composites to aluminum, and aluminum to steel, and one composite type to another composite type to make these bodies.”
As for 3D printing, Dean said, “It’s a growing area, for sure. A key question will be on the equipment side – what [additive manufacturing] technology will come out ahead, or will there be multiple versions, and what types of materials can they run?”
Sternberg said it’s “still an open question” as to what role 3D printing might play in larger-scale manufacturing (beyond it’s current primary use for prototyping work).
“There are still a number of technical hurdles that need to be overcome before we see that realized,” he said. “3D printed plastic parts tend to be not as strong as an injection molded or blow molded part. There are lots of void spaces, and we’re going to need to find a way to improve the mechanical strength of those parts. There also are temperature limitations, based on the polymers currently used.
“If we can move to using crystalline polymers in 3-D printing,” Sternberg said, “that will open some doors. But we’re still a ways away.”
The two DuPont executives also are in agreement when it comes to the future of renewably sourced materials.
“The key is,” Dean stressed, “it can’t just be about being a biomaterial. It needs to add some functionality that is not otherwise available through different chemical means.”
To which Sternberg added: “… it’s going to continue to be a struggle and a challenge for renewably sourced materials if they’re performing the same function and it requires paying a price premium.” They need to deliver real performance advantages to become a major factor, he said.
Meeting the demands of plastics-consuming professionals won’t be easy. There are a host of major challenges, which perhaps helps explain another one of the survey’s results. Some 39 percent of respondents said they believe the role of the material supplier is more important now than it was just three years ago (vs. just 3 percent who think it is less important).
For more information about the makeup of the survey respondents, and to see more survey results, go to the DuPont website.
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