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Plastics & Progress

The plastics industry has always relied on the auto industry. Of the various companies represented by attendees at NPE2012—of which there were more than 19,000—those from automotive are important to the producers of plastics machinery, resins, and ancillary goods and services.


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I recently attended NPE2012, the largest plastics exposition in the western hemisphere. The expo space was on the order of 2.2-million square feet at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Anyone who has ever attended an event that requires them to traverse the distance between the West and North/South buildings probably wishes that the guys from Disney would go over there and hook up a monorail system because it is no short trip.
And while on the subject of transportation (deft segue, eh?), it is worth noting that William E. Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association (plasticsindustry.org), the organizer of NPE, said, “The plastics industry has always relied on the auto industry,” explaining that of the various companies represented by attendees—of which there were more than 19,000—those from automotive are important to the producers of plastics machinery, resins, and ancillary goods and services.
During my time at NPE2012 I had the opportunity to talk to a variety of executives from machinery and resin suppliers. Obviously, my questions to them were focused on automotive, but that wasn’t a leap by any stretch, because to a person they were quite familiar with the 2016 CAFE 34.1 mpg fleet standard that OEMs are working to address.
This familiarity was underscored by their observations related to how lightweight materials—plastics, in particular—can help reduce vehicle mass and therefore contribute to meeting the regulations.
But another aspect of what they had to say is something that isn’t as straightforward as replacing this material with that one. It isn’t just about substitution.

Rather, it is about a rethink of how things are done. That is, it isn’t about doing the same thing differently, but about doing something different. For example, let’s say that there is a given component, such as an instrument panel, that is an assembly of various smaller elements, such as brackets and attachments and inserts and whatnot. Chances are good that many of those elements are presently made of some polymer or another. And chances are possibly better than there are newly formulated resins that can result in lighter parts.
One approach would be to take the new material and simply replace the old. Yes, that would work.
But it wouldn’t be doing what really needs to be done.
What should happen is that the designers and engineers get together and rethink the approach to that instrument panel. It should be redesigned and reprocessed so that it takes advantage of the properties of the new materials and the new equipment. That way, achieving cost and mass goals is more likely to occur. The benefits of the new technology can be realized.
Too often, whether we’re making products like instrument panels or anything else for that matter, we are simply paving the proverbial cow paths. Yes, the cows need to get from point A to point B, just as we need to have a deliverable (like an instrument panel). But rather than stepping back and asking whether there might not be a better way to do it, we go for the simpler, easier and probably less-effective default approach. Certainly we get done what needs to get done, but we aren’t doing it by using newer means and methods that can be absolutely advantageous.

We let habit get in the way of progress.