What’s Ahead for Thermoplastics

Adoption of thermoplastic composites is growing. Erb says that as industry continues looking for ways to replace metals with lighter weight, structural composite parts, thermoplastic composites are gaining increased attention. The full-life analysis value of thermoplastic composites parts is simply better, he says. Not only can they lightweight vehicles and other applications, but because they are lighter and melt at lower temperatures, they use significantly less embodied energy in their processing, transport and recycling than metals. “Right now, there’s a huge trend in thermoplastic composites,” says Erb. “And there is a reason for that: It’s starting to be a value proposition that makes sense.”

Many companies are banking on it. PolyOne added continuous fiber thermoplastic composites to its portfolio with the purchase of Polystrand in 2016, and it acquired PlastiComp, a leading LFRT composite producer, in June. “Composites are a significant focus for us,” says Doug Hammond, technology leader at PolyOne. “We believe these materials will play a major role in key markets for plastics going forward.”

One of the primary challenges Hammond sees in the increasing use of CFRT materials is the ability to design products with high assurance that can be easily manufactured. “The data needed to reliably run FEA and process modeling software is lacking, so we are actively working to generate the information needed by the design community,” he says.

Large-scale industry will continue to demand automation in the future, and thermoplastic composites are innately suited to automated production. “[Automation] is obviously a big question mark with a lot of composites manufacturers now,” says Marcy Offner, director of communications and marketing at Composites One. “Where does it fit in, and how can they use products that automate their processes? Thermoplastics might eventually hold the key to that.”