Recently, the global plastics industry community was welcomed to a great National Plastics Exposition (NPE) that took place May 7-11, along with the equally impressive ANTEC from May 7-10 in Orlando, Florida, at the Orange County Convention Center.

NPE is produced and trademarked by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and has been a plastics leader for more than 70 years, unequaled in its ability to bring the entire industry together.

Participants include buying teams from more than 100 countries and more than 20,000 companies take part, including the entire global plastics supply chain and the full range of end-user markets.

ANTEC, produced by the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), is the largest, most respected and well-known technical conference in the plastics industry.

It's where classroom theory connects with real world solutions. ANTEC boasts 550+ technical and business papers on new and updated technologies, 60+ marketing presentations, panels and tutorials, networking events and student functions — all providing attendees with face-to-face interaction with expert representatives from the largest industry segments.

Let’s highlight some emerging plastics technologies at NPE and ANTEC, starting with what’s leading the 3-D printing plastics revolution. In the traditional 3-D printing area of FFF, or fused filament fabrication, novel open-source software has come to the forefront.

These FFF processes can produce lower-cost tooling and molds that use an array of plastic material systems, and that can incorporate company-developed proprietary software. This combination of processing flexibility harnessed to lower 3-D printer costs opens the door wide for engineers to frequently iterate design changes in tooling development.

A second major driver is entirely new high-speed, cost-effective, 3-D printing processes that are starting to be competitive in the low- to mid-volume range (5,000 to 20,000 parts). Hewlett Packard’s HP Jet Fusion 3D Printer is easily up to 10 times faster versus than existing FFF fused deposition 3-D processes, while delivering parts at half the cost.

Jet Fusion 3D Printer System (Image: HP).

The two basic Jet Fusion 3D printer models, the Jet Fusion 3200 and the Jet Fusion 4200, are responsible for making roughly half of all their respective plastic panels and components.

With starting printer costs at $140,000, these parts directly attest to these system’s high performance, reliability, and cost-effectiveness. HP 3-D printing its own printer parts was strictly driven by economics.

HP further claims that volumes up to 55,000 parts are cheaper to make via its 3-D printing process as compared to injection molding. Also reinforcing this economic driver is the fact that the HP Jet Fusion industrial 3-D printers are produced in comparatively small numbers, making it a more attractive option than desktop 3-D printing.

The other new 3-D printing process to keep a close watch on is Carbon3D’s M1. It is capable of printing parts 100 times faster than traditional FFF or fused deposition printers, with mechanically tough engineering grade plastics plus superior surface finishes.

Carbon3D offers their system via a unique subscription model, starting at $45,000, allowing customers to select from seven, internally developed specialty resins. They have developed a proprietary Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology that employs superbly tuned light and oxygen, which creates parts from a resin pool, versus traditional fused deposition techniques that involve layer by layer part build-up.

End-users including Ford, BMW, and Johnson & Johnson have produced under-the hood and interior automotive parts, as well as medical devices, utilized in high mechanical stress environments. The Carbon3D M1 process significantly shortens product manufacturing time frames.

Carbon3D M1 Printer (L), CLIP Process (R). (Image: Carbon 3D).

Next, metal-to-plastic car engine part replacement began with the famed engine designer Matti Holtzberg 40 years ago and the original Polimotor/Ford Motor Company project.

It led to innovative, first-time high-heat plastic use in the engine compartment, and was not further developed by the major car companies, but now has triumphantly entered a second chapter with Solvay funding the Polimotor 2 under Matti Holtzberg’s guidance.

Solvay’s goal is now to build an all high-heat plastics engine weighing around an average 65 kilograms (143 pounds). This is approximately 40 kilograms (88 pounds) lighter than equivalent engines of today. The main technical market driver here in metal-to-plastic weight reduction is not only improved vehicle gasoline energy efficiency, but equally important reductions in greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions to meet both car company fleet gasoline efficiency use and environmental regulations.

Polimotor 2 High Performance Prototype Car (L), Pump Parts (R). (Image: Plastics-Car/Polimotor 2).

Key converted engine part applications included both oil and water pumps, inlets/outlets for water cooling purposes, drive pinions, injection harnesses, butterfly enclosures. High-heat Solvay materials used are PolyAmide-Imide (PAI), PolyPhthalAmide (PPA), PolyEtherEtherKetone (PEEK), PolyArylEtherKetone (PAEK), PolyPhenylSUlfone (PPSU), PolyPhenylene Sulfide (PPS) and fluoroelastomers.

The Polimotor 2 engine is currently undergoing race-car testing and will certainly lead to increased metal-to-plastic, under the hood, part conversions.

Continuing, composite orthopedic medical implant trauma plates are noteworthy. Bone fracture surgery has depended on metal plates to repair compound bone fractures and breaks.

PEEK-made plates with carbon-fiber reinforcement parallels the mechanical strength of metal, but with its superior material property balance exhibits a lower stiffness, very similar to cortical bone. Metal being much stiffer than cortical bone causes stress build up and delays healing.

The Victrex Invibio PEEK-based plates have superior fatigue resistance (40 times over metal) that makes them last longer, and means thatpatients will heal their fracture before the trauma plate implant fails from fatigue. Also, composite trauma plates are radiolucent, making them almost totally transparent to X-rays.

This permits a clean view of the bone fracture site for healing and infection monitoring. There is low tissue adhesion to the composite plate and combined with a lack of metal cold welding, thus making labor saving gains on removal of the plate in follow up surgery.

In new alternative and renewable content plasticizer options, there is Swiss-based Jungbunzlauer Ladenburg’s two products, Citrofol BI tributyl citrate and Citrofol BII acetyl tributyl citrate.

Jungbunzlauer Ladenburg is collaborating with Green Biologics, a very well-established renewable chemicals firm. Green Biologics’ BioPure n-butanol is the renewable content base for both the Citrofol BI and the Citrofol BII plasticizers.

Currently, there is a strong global end-use trend for these plasticizers in medical, consumer personal care, and bioplastics-related areas. Citrofol BII in particular exhibits a low viscosity, transparency, no odor, high boiling point, and low volatility. Citrofol BII displays excellent PVC (PolyVinyl Chloride) compatibility, making it a highly desirable plasticizer for such end use applications as flooring surfaces, textile coatings, and synthetic leathers.

Dibenzoate/DOTP Blended Plasticized Synthetic PVC Leather (Image: Green Biologics).

DOTP (DiOctyl TerePhthalate) plasticizers are terephthalate-based and are considered by U.S. governmental regulatory agencies and material suppliers as non-phthalates.

Terephthalate-based plasticizers have less desirable PVC compatibility when compounded directly. However, DOTP, when blended with very PVC-compatible dibenzoate-based plasticizers, such as DEGDB (DiEthylene Glycol DiBenzoate) and DPGDB (DiPropylene Glycol DiBenzoate), show very good promise in hard to formulate synthetic leather applications as well as direct food contact areas.

Citrofol L Bll Biobased Plasticizer (Green) Properties Compared to Phthalate Based DINP (Blue), DINCH (Yellow), and Terephthalate Based DOTP (Red) Plasticizers (Image: Jungbunzlauer Ladenburg).

Finally, plastics technology-wise, another aspect of functionalized silica fillers involves glass microspheres both in hollow and solid forms.

In essence, these microspheres perform a role that is midway between a functionalized talc filler and standard glass fiber reinforcement. Microspheres have a 1 aspect ratio that will provide low warpage in narrow tolerance molded parts where improvements are required in stiffness, abrasion resistance, and harsh chemical exposure. Glass microspheres are surface etched and coated for improved plastic resin bonding.

PQ Corporation, traditionally known as Potters Industries, is the major global supplier of glass microspheres. Precision-engineered glass microspheres can be loaded into plastic compounds at higher levels compared to talc mineral fillers.

Yet even with high glass microsphere loadings versus talc or other mineral fillers, they effectively lower a given plastic compound’s viscosity. This, in turn, improves the compound’s flow leading to increased molded part or extruded throughput production.

Also, and equally important, due to high glass microsphere loadings, compound and part costs are significantly reduced. In addition, microspheres will improve overall injection molding flowability when used in combination with glass, carbon, or aramid fibers, or other miscellaneous flake or filler particle shapes.

Glass microspheres are available in solid and hollow forms. Solid microspheres are 2.5 times heavier than hollow microspheres. Hollow microspheres offer maximum volume displacement and therefore part weight reduction, along with enhanced thermal insulation performance. Solid microspheres are more resistant to process degradation. Both hollow and solid microspheres are more color additive neutral compared to standard and tinted talc powders.

Hollow Glass Microspheres (L), Solid Glass Microspheres (R) (Image: PQ Corporation).

Glass microsphere compounding is straightforward. With their smooth spherical shape, glass microspheres take less process energy to compound into plastic resins, whether thermoplastic- or thermoset-based.

Microspheres also have small surface areas that helps maintain a low viscosity level at high load rates, and in turn less plastic resin in the compound recipe. Their spherical shape minimizes plastic equipment screw and barrel wear. PQ Corporation has maintained long-term microsphere development programs to continually improve strength, whiter appearance variants, small particle size grades, and lower-density products.