January 1, 2015
Source: Composites Manufacturing Magazine – January and February 2015 Issue
Giving the People What They Want
If you make consumer electronics and household appliances, function isn’t enough: Aesthetics are a top priority, too.
When a leading home appliance manufacturer recently tested shelves for a new line of refrigerators, the company ran into a glitch: The die-cast metal frames for the glass shelves were susceptible to corrosion. So Mar-Bal Inc., a compounder and molder of thermoset composite products based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, worked with the appliance manufacturer to design and test an alternative. Mar-Bal supplied more than one million shelf frames made from THERMITAL™, a thermoset composite with a physical vapor deposition (PVD) finish that resembles metal.
“Our solution won out because inside refrigerators there’s condensation, and with condensation comes the potential for corrosion and rust,” says Ron Poff, manager of global marketing and brands for Mar-Bal. “Thermoset composites gave the customer the look and feel of die cast, but with the added benefit of corrosion resistance.”
Mar-Bal provides thermoset composite components for several consumer appliance brands, including Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid, GE and Electrolux. “You can find a Mar-Bal manufactured component in anything in the kitchen or laundry room of a home,” says Marc Imbrogno, director of materials engineering for Mar-Bal. The company makes components that consumers see and touch every day, such as appliance handles, knobs, control panels, consoles and vent trim.
Composites make sense for household appliances for obvious reasons: They offer durability, low thermal conductivity and corrosion and chemical resistance. But appliances are just one area within the larger consumer products market where composites are gaining traction. Consumer products encompass anything that people buy for personal or household use, from necessities such as clothing to luxury items like boats and sports equipment. In addition to household appliances, composites are poised to take off in the consumer electronics marketplace, where early adopters are testing and beginning to introduce handheld devices, mobile phones, laptop computers and tablets comprising composite materials.
“Whether its household appliances or personal, digital gizmos, you’ll notice a move from metals to composites,” says Raj Mathur, Ph.D., vice president of technology and business development for PlastiComp, a supplier of long-fiber reinforced thermoplastics (LFT) based in Winona, Minn. “One reason for this is based on life cycle analysis. You can’t churn out consumer products in such large numbers in this globalized economy and use up all the resources involved in metals and metallic alloys, many of which are becoming rare.”
Surface Generation Ltd., a technology start-up based in the United Kingdom, has been investing in the consumer electronics market for the past three years. Rather than commit to one solution, the company designs and manufactures equipment to make products using composites, advanced plastics, metals and glass. CEO Ben Halford believes high-performance composites ultimately will win the lion’s share of business in consumer electronics. “That’s not to say it’s a done deal. There’s a fairly big scrap going on in the marketplace,” says Halford, whose company also works in the automotive and aerospace areas. “The metallic guys aren’t going to take this lying down: They don’t want their lunch to be eaten. But I think it’s inevitable that continuous fiber reinforced [products] will be there in large part within the next two years.”
Passing the ‘Oomph’ Test
The main reason that consumer product manufacturers are turning to composites is for durability and lightweighting, says Mathur. But they’re also looking for the “oomph” factor, he adds. People want appliances and electronic devices that feel good to the touch and look stylish.
“When we touch something there is an immediate response,” says Poff. “When you’re making a product for a brand like GE or Electrolux, that first out-of-the-box experience is critical to brand identity.” Mar-Bal teamed with GE’s appliance division last year to create a new, ergonomic design for oven handles. (In September, GE sold its appliance division to Electrolux, also a Mar-Bal customer.) A repeated refrain from the client – and common throughout the household appliance market –was the importance of haptics, or tactile sensations. “The density of thermoset composites – the heaviness of it – was critical,” says Poff. “You can get that from metals, too, but the problem with die cast on an oven is the transferability of heat. When I touch the handle, I’m going to get burned.”
Touch is equally important in the consumer electronics market, where PlastiComp is in preliminary discussions with companies seeking to replace metal components on computers and televisions. “The primary reason is lightweighting, but the second reason is tactile sensation,” says Mathur. “These composites feel good to the touch, especially if they have an over layer of a soft-touch plastic. And when you move into consumer luxury goods, the buzz is on the aerospace carbon fiber look.”
When shopping for household appliances, consumers add a third criteria to the list – sound. “Noise is a very important aspect,” says Poff. “You want to reduce the decibel level of that appliance, and the acoustic value of reducing the overall noise is there with thermoset composites.”
Mar-Bal investigated the acoustic performance of composites for one of its customers, the blender manufacturer Vitamix. Mar-Bal performed acoustic chamber testing, comparing thermosets to acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastics. The company presented its findings in a white paper that identified the sources of blender noise and discussed how bulk molding compound could help lower contributing frequencies and blender noise levels. “We won business by showcasing the difference between materials,” says Poff. “For any countertop blender, a six or seven decibel difference is significant.”
Meeting Many Needs
The bracket’s extensive list of requirements included the following:
PlastiComp wrapped up a development project with a consumer electronics company that highlights the complex requirements of some applications. PlastiComp created technologies and tools so the company could replace die-cast magnesium in mobile phone brackets with LFT composites. “This was more than just metal substitution for added stiffness and strength,” says Mathur. “There was an emphasis not only on mechanical properties, but the bracket also had to have certain electrical characteristics.”
- Stiffness equivalent to magnesium
- Weight lighter than magnesium
- Extremely thin profiles – less than one millimeter thick
- A complex shape
- Electrical properties, including electromagnetic (EMI) shielding and antenna reception
“That’s a challenging role for any composite to fulfill,” admits Mathur. He says that long-fiber reinforced thermoplastics form a skeletal network that increases the structure of the part, giving it the requisite stiffness. PlastiComp utilized carbon fiber because it’s electrically conductive, which in turn meets the need for EMI shielding. The company hit targets for surface resistivity through the use of specific additives and nanofillers it declined to disclose.
PlastiComp conducted structural analysis and mold flow analysis, tweaking the design as needed. It took into account numerous considerations: What is the best gate location for injection molding? What fiber orientation is optimal? Is the orientation in line with the stresses induced in the bracket? The project required the team at PlastiComp to carefully consider material selection, tool design and the manufacturing process. “Most people concentrate on one or the other,” says Mathur. “But it’s essential to integrate all three.”
PlastiComp transferred the technologies and tools to the consumer electronics company, which can now produce millions of brackets via injection molding. “We demonstrated that you can satisfy seemingly opposing needs by combining mechanical and electrical properties,” says Mathur. “That’s something the wider industry should keep in mind.”
Selling Ideas, Building Partnerships
It’s important to note that while PlastiComp is primarily a materials supplier, it did not provide any of its LFT composite compounds to the consumer electronics manufacturer. “We were paid simply to do development work,” says Eric Wollan, business development manager for PlastiComp. “We told them how to produce the brackets, and they took that knowledge back internally.” And that’s OK with PlastiComp and other companies trying to help composites gain a foothold in the market.
“Right now, the composites industry – the materials suppliers, processing companies and equipment manufacturers – are going through the very painful education phase for the early adopters,” says Halford. Surface Generation is working hand-in-hand with customers on a few projects, including laptop computers and tablets. Though the company is tight-lipped about the details, Halford shared some of the big-picture challenges.
Most laptop computers, for example, are made of four exterior panels – one on top displaying the company logo, one around the screen, one around the keyboard and one at the base. “We’re now seeing some fairly serious attempts from the main players to shift to a structural enclosure,” says Halford. “But what we haven’t seen yet is a full composite design. The pain associated with that is incredible because the volumes are huge and the yields the companies demand are astronomical. Even a very small amount of scrap is hideous when you’re making 200,000 of something per month.”
Tablet production faces a similar challenge, trying to “make a hollowed out pumpkin, then stuff it with electronics,” says Halford. Composites can offer the solution, integrating the electronics into the structure. “The big value added with composites is not necessarily the material itself; it’s what you can do in one hit,” says Halford. “Can you take a 50-step process and shrink it to eight? If you can think differently, fuse things together and over mold electronics, then all sorts of things become cheaper and faster.”
Even though composites usage in household appliances is not new, customer education remains a priority in that niche, too. Mar-Bal holds “knowledge share events,” bringing several employees to key accounts to position composites as a substitute material. The company spends a couple of hours with the client’s design engineers, product engineers, the quality team, purchasing staff and others. “The goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of composites because many people don’t really know what they are,” says Poff.
These knowledge share events are the prelude to solid partnerships with customers. It’s important to get in on the ground floor and offer advice on design and processes. “Our job is to interface with the customer – to understand their needs – then balance that with the capabilities of thermoset composite materials and processes,” says Imbrogno. For example, by being involved early Mar-Bal can inform a client if a surface or geometry can’t be molded reliably or if a unique color or look requires post-mold finishing.
“I think consumer products is one of the more challenging sectors of thermoset technology,” says Imbrogno. “We’re talking about high-output injection molding with multiple cavities and lights-out automation, while producing a part that’s near perfect.”
The pressure to produce complex appliances and electronics that must look great and feel good is compounded by the urgency within the industry to churn out newer, better items at breakneck speed. “It’s so different from aerospace or automotive,” says Halford. “You talk to an auto guy who says they need something quickly, and you just smile and say, ‘Yes, of course.’ But that’s not quickly. The consumer electronics world will redefine your understanding of scale and speed.
Mathur of PlastiComp concurs. Their customers demand short development cycles – typically eight months or less depending on the complexity of the part and how long it takes to make the tool. The development cycle for the mobile phone bracket was only four months. That’s a rigorous schedule for one company, which is why Halford of Surface Generation says partnering is paramount to future success in the marketplace.
“To work on something new, you must collaborate, even if you are competitors,” he says. “Consumer electronics companies will not single-source from a supplier, so I need my peer group to be successful. We need three or four viable material suppliers, processing suppliers and molding houses out there who are credible to ignite the touchpaper.” With a capable supply chain working together and generating excitement in the marketplace, products will follow. Halford says big players in the consumer electronics industry will release an initial wave of composite-based products this year. Then those companies and followers will work out the kinks inevitable in new products and market second-generation products throughout 2016. Halford expects thermoplastic consumer electronics “will settle down into normalcy” by 2017.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done by composites industry professionals. For those up to the task, Halford offers this cautionary advice: “Strap in, hold your breath and delete any assumptions you may have.” The upside? He says, “The rewards are definitely there.”
Composites Manufacturing Magazine. Article: Giving People What they Want. Retrieved from http://compositesmanufacturingmagazine.com/2015/01/composites-give-people-the-form-and-function-they-want/ on June 21, 2015.