Innovations in polymer science have produced plastics that are lighter than aluminum and relatively durable, causing manufacturers and their customers to take a new look at how to use the materials.
At Muskegon-based Camcar Plastics Inc., the plastic injection-molded parts manufacturer is producing custom wrenches made from raw plastic material that is reinforced with glass, according to company owner and President Courtney Gust.
The material, which is 50 percent glass-filled nylon, has been available and used by the company for years, but Camcar’s customers are becoming more open to replacing traditionally metal parts with plastic, Gust told MiBiz.
“Materials have come a long way,” he said. “With some of the different additives that you can add in plastics now, you can come close to the strength of steel.”
Plastic materials are and continue to be especially “in vogue” among automakers looking to take weight out of their vehicles — a process known as lightweighting — to increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, according to Mike Wall, director of automotive analysis at IHS Markit in Grand Rapids.
“Plastics are playing an ever-increasing role in automotive for a multitude of reasons and probably first and foremost is really the lightweighting,” Wall said. “There is a continued trend to pull weight out of the vehicle.”
Although some lightweight grades of metal and non-plastic composites can compare to the rigidity of steel, and while metal may be a solution in certain applications, plastic materials still win the day for their cost efficiency, according to Wall.
“You could throw magnesium into a vehicle and make it really lightweight, or use carbon fiber, but also price yourself completely out of the market,” he said. “When you’re talking about it from a cost effectiveness perspective, your traditional plastics have generally been actually quite cost effective along those lines.”
A case for plastics
Many plastic components can weigh 50-percent less than similar parts made from other materials, according to a report from the Amerian Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade association based in Washington, D.C. Plastics today make up 50 percent of a vehicle’s volume but only about 10 percent of its weight, according to the data.
“Society needs plastics to live more sustainably,” Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s Plastics Division, said in a statement last week in response to legislation designed to address plastic waste. “Plastics make our cars lighter and more fuel-efficient and our homes more energy-efficient while significantly lowering our carbon footprint.”
Plastic parts have played a critical role in the development of modern automotive safety components. Seat belts are manufactured from durable strands of polyester fiber, airbags are commonly made from high-strength nylon fabric and child safety seats come from numerous advancements in plastics manufacturing and science, according to the ACC.
Automakers have also used plastics to help differentiate their vehicles, particularly on the interior, according to Wall. Coatings, etchings, wraps and vinyl applications on a vehicle’s dashboard, console or door trim can even make interiors that are nearly all plastic feel appealing, he said.
“Nothing can turn the consumer off more than going in and knocking on their car door or knocking on their dashboard and feel like they’re getting into this plastic bucket,” Wall said. “You could design a very cheap, very cost-effective interior by just doing that very thing, just making it a vast wasteland of plastic — but automakers have been doing a better job of recognizing that they can’t get away with that.”
Lightweighting with plastic materials is applicable to manufacturing outside of the automotive industry as well, according to Paul DeWys, owner of Coopersville-based Forerunner 3D Printing LLC and DeWys Engineering LLC.
“The automotive guys are trying to boost performance for fuel standards and they’re pulling out every trick in the book to try to get internal combustion engine cars to meet these more and more aggressive standards,” DeWys told MiBiz. “With our machine-based clients, it is not necessarily like there’s a standard or a government body that is pushing them to lightweight. It’s performance.”
Forerunner 3D uses additive manufacturing with 3-D printing technology to produce lightweight end-of-arm tooling used to obtain higher performance out of automation robots, he said.
“Some of our customers, they really like these (3-D printed) parts for gripper fingers because you can only have the robot pick up so much weight,” he said. “Our gripper fingers are half the weight of aluminum yet they’re incredibly strong and wear-resistant.”
New innovations ahead
The plastic materials used in additive manufacturing are becoming more robust and available in different variations, according to DeWys, who uses a $400,000 Hewlett-Packard 3-D printer to compete against low-volume injection molding manufacturers, mostly using nylon material.
“On the HP machine, they’re starting to release new materials, which is exciting,” DeWys said. “They just released a new rubber material not too long ago. We were stuck with the same couple of materials for a while there because they kind of over-promised and under-delivered on the material side of things. They’re starting to really, really right that ship.”
Until recently, the majority of raw materials used to build and produce parts using additive manufacturing were locked up in early patents, keeping 3-D printing costs too high to compete with other types of manufacturing, according to DeWys. Now, as more patents expire, the door is opening for startups, he said.
The last six to eight months have shown innovation in the additive materials marketplace and that new materials will no longer be commonly tied to a machine or a manufacturer, according to DeWys.
“There’s just a lot of people trying to commercialize stuff that I think has been kicking around in college labs and large corporate R&D centers for the last couple of years because everyone was afraid of getting sued,” he said. “That’s changing and the growth in startups is just incredible. A lot of those companies are going to go to zero, but a couple of them are going to survive and they’re going to push the industry forward.”