PlastiComp conducted structural analysis and mold flow analysis, tweaking the design as needed. It took into account numerous considerations: What is the best gate location for injection molding? What fiber orientation is optimal? Is the orientation in line with the stresses induced in the bracket? The project required the team at PlastiComp to carefully consider material selection, tool design and the manufacturing process. “Most people concentrate on one or the other,” says Mathur. “But it’s essential to integrate all three.”
PlastiComp transferred the technologies and tools to the consumer electronics company, which can now produce millions of brackets via injection molding. “We demonstrated that you can satisfy seemingly opposing needs by combining mechanical and electrical properties,” says Mathur. “That’s something the wider industry should keep in mind.”
Selling Ideas, Building Partnerships
It’s important to note that while PlastiComp is primarily a materials supplier, it did not provide any of its LFT composite compounds to the consumer electronics manufacturer. “We were paid simply to do development work,” says Eric Wollan, business development manager for PlastiComp. “We told them how to produce the brackets, and they took that knowledge back internally.” And that’s OK with PlastiComp and other companies trying to help composites gain a foothold in the market.
“Right now, the composites industry – the materials suppliers, processing companies and equipment manufacturers – are going through the very painful education phase for the early adopters,” says Halford. Surface Generation is working hand-in-hand with customers on a few projects, including laptop computers and tablets. Though the company is tight-lipped about the details, Halford shared some of the big-picture challenges.
Most laptop computers, for example, are made of four exterior panels – one on top displaying the company logo, one around the screen, one around the keyboard and one at the base. “We’re now seeing some fairly serious attempts from the main players to shift to a structural enclosure,” says Halford. “But what we haven’t seen yet is a full composite design. The pain associated with that is incredible because the volumes are huge and the yields the companies demand are astronomical. Even a very small amount of scrap is hideous when you’re making 200,000 of something per month.”
Tablet production faces a similar challenge, trying to “make a hollowed out pumpkin, then stuff it with electronics,” says Halford. Composites can offer the solution, integrating the electronics into the structure. “The big value added with composites is not necessarily the material itself; it’s what you can do in one hit,” says Halford. “Can you take a 50-step process and shrink it to eight? If you can think differently, fuse things together and over mold electronics, then all sorts of things become cheaper and faster.”
Even though composites usage in household appliances is not new, customer education remains a priority in that niche, too. Mar-Bal holds “knowledge share events,” bringing several employees to key accounts to position composites as a substitute material. The company spends a couple of hours with the client’s design engineers, product engineers, the quality team, purchasing staff and others. “The goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of composites because many people don’t really know what they are,” says Poff.