Key Insights on the Polymer Industry from SPE ANTEC 2020: The Virtual Edition
Take an inside look at SPE’s first virtual conference.
By Shell Polymers on May 07, 2020
As a plastics thought leader that is committed to education and keeping the community safe during this crisis, SPE ANTEC went virtual this year. Instead of hosting their signature three-day event in San Antonio, Texas, the conference was expanded to share keynotes and technical presentations via Zoom from March 30 to May 5, 2020.
Covering topics such as injection molding, bioplastics, extrusion, rotational molding, and more, the sessions unpack the latest innovations surrounding each subject. That’s why we asked Shell Polymers Pros, Dan Falla and Elliot Carnevale, to attend a variety of presentations and share their insights throughout the month-long event.
Chemicals Are Currently Playing a Crucial Role
For decades, the chemicals industry has supplied the world with products that enable industries to function effectively. Whether it takes the form of hand sanitizer in blow-molded bottles or medical tools in protective film, the essential plastic products used in health, hygiene, and sanitation are often overlooked.
In this uncertain time, manufacturers are delivering the products the world desperately needs. For example, Shell is adapting production to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Shell Chemicals Canada diverted resources to produce isopropyl alcohol (IPA), a main ingredient in sanitizing liquids, and made approximately 2.5 million liters available free for use in the healthcare sector.
In Germany, Shell has pivoted its supply chain to direct more hand sanitizer toward hospitals and in the Netherlands Shell is producing face protectors with 3D-printed parts.1 The impact of these shifts speak to the critical role chemicals manufacturers can play in the healthcare sector during times of crisis.
Sustainability Is Still a Priority For The Chemicals Industry
Even during this challenging time, chemical companies are still actively pursuing ways to move forward on their commitments to sustainability. For example, Shell is dedicating time and resources to develop a sustainable solution to plastic waste.
Back in Q4 of 2019, Shell made a breakthrough by successfully making high-end chemicals using a liquid feedstock from plastic waste. These chemicals are then used by Shell customers to create important items such as medical equipment. This process, pyrolysis, is unlocking the potential of plastic waste to create a circular value chain. While this was a major milestone for the industry, it’s just the beginning, and innovations to continue the fight against plastic waste are still as strong as ever.
New Developments Are A Work in Progress
The development of biodegradable plastics, or bioplastics, is also on the industry’s watch list. That said, the use of this material is currently limited because it’s not a fit for every application, isn’t widely available, and can be expensive.
Despite these challenges, plastic producers continue to pursue breakthroughs. For example, one focus area has been combining wood and degradable plastics into a hybrid material. One challenge discussed in the presentation is that the intense pressure generated by the clamp force during injection molding and injection pressure generated when injecting the polymer for over-molding, can cause the wood to compact and crack.
Additionally, a new technique called Rapid Heating Cooling Molding (RHCM) is being experimented with for injection molding applications. RHCM involves rapidly changing the temperature of the cooling fluid inlet temperature throughout the molding process. If successful, it could expand the number of applications for PE converters.
While making progress in development, both RHCM and bioplastics need further experimentation to become an effective, cost-efficient option industry-wide.
Polymers and Injection Molding Continue to Drive Automotive Innovation
As new chemicals and plastic-based materials are developed, many manufacturers are eager to capitalize on these cutting-edge resources. That is especially true in the auto industry where manufacturers, who have been pushed toward progress by global disruptions, are finding ways to improve product quality and reduce costs with polymers.
Replacing metal parts with plastic components has been a trend in the automotive space for many years, but today, molders and brand owners can push the envelope to parts that haven’t historically seemed viable for plastics conversion thanks to:
- material enhancements
- value chain collaboration
- simulation improvements
- streamlined designs
For example, advances in thermoplastics have made it possible for turbocharging to power smaller engines that offer a more balanced approach to fuel efficiency. Innovations like this will drive creativity and cultivate a more sustainable automotive platform for the future.
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Industry 4.0 Helps PE Providers Parse Operational Data
The fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, focuses on using IoT and cyber-physical systems to gather and analyze information with the purpose of making data-backed decisions that improve operational efficiency and predict potential issues before they halt production.
In the plastics industry, leveraging Industry 4.0 for intelligent material selection and advanced part design could allow the commodity polymers market to grow due to the increased use in more technical applications.
For example, using a system that can collect large amounts of data, collate that data, and provide guidance toward this objective would allow for more profitable and efficient go-to-market operations. That’s one reason many large companies, including Shell, are implementing Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) programs to unify data from PLCs and generate visualizations.
Shell Polymers is also capitalizing on advanced polymer technology technologies in its application hall with injection molds that use in-mold sensors and allow us to better understand our processes by specifically identifying the causes of issues seen in our lab and from our customers.
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Injection Molding Complex Parts Requires Creativity
In a complex application like injection molding, sometimes best practices don’t apply across the board. In fact, following the rule of thumb could negatively impact part and mold designs when it’s not applied with critical engineering discipline.
For example, when general material shrink parameters are applied to parts produced with highly crystalline materials, the calculation will dramatically underestimate shrinkage in complex parts.
As more consumer brands are looking to differentiate themselves in the market, complex part design will be required to remain competitive. Companies that are leveraging mold flow simulation to the fullest extent are having far greater success in producing parts to print the first time, rather than having to constantly rework the tool. Shell Polymers works with the best in the industry to generate data that is meaningful for our customers, and will help our customers reduce the number of iterations required to get the part design right.
A virtual conference is new territory for a lot of companies, but the opportunity to learn from our colleagues in the plastics industry from the safety of our home offices has been a worthwhile experience. As the conference progresses, we’re looking forward to joining more presentations and providing more insights into what is happening in our industry.
As COVID-19 is changing our social and economic landscape on a daily basis, our goal continues to be to support you and your business. While customer collaboration may look different in the near future, the focus must remain on your continued success. Our team of industry experts are committed to doing things differently and developing new ways of doing business to deliver an unrivaled customer experience. If Shell Polymers can be of service to you in any way, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.