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.”