These knowledge share events are the prelude to solid partnerships with customers. It’s important to get in on the ground floor and offer advice on design and processes. “Our job is to interface with the customer – to understand their needs – then balance that with the capabilities of thermoset composite materials and processes,” says Imbrogno. For example, by being involved early Mar-Bal can inform a client if a surface or geometry can’t be molded reliably or if a unique color or look requires post-mold finishing.
“I think consumer products is one of the more challenging sectors of thermoset technology,” says Imbrogno. “We’re talking about high-output injection molding with multiple cavities and lights-out automation, while producing a part that’s near perfect.”
The pressure to produce complex appliances and electronics that must look great and feel good is compounded by the urgency within the industry to churn out newer, better items at breakneck speed. “It’s so different from aerospace or automotive,” says Halford. “You talk to an auto guy who says they need something quickly, and you just smile and say, ‘Yes, of course.’ But that’s not quickly. The consumer electronics world will redefine your understanding of scale and speed.
Mathur of PlastiComp concurs. Their customers demand short development cycles – typically eight months or less depending on the complexity of the part and how long it takes to make the tool. The development cycle for the mobile phone bracket was only four months. That’s a rigorous schedule for one company, which is why Halford of Surface Generation says partnering is paramount to future success in the marketplace.
“To work on something new, you must collaborate, even if you are competitors,” he says. “Consumer electronics companies will not single-source from a supplier, so I need my peer group to be successful. We need three or four viable material suppliers, processing suppliers and molding houses out there who are credible to ignite the touchpaper.” With a capable supply chain working together and generating excitement in the marketplace, products will follow. Halford says big players in the consumer electronics industry will release an initial wave of composite-based products this year. Then those companies and followers will work out the kinks inevitable in new products and market second-generation products throughout 2016. Halford expects thermoplastic consumer electronics “will settle down into normalcy” by 2017.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done by composites industry professionals. For those up to the task, Halford offers this cautionary advice: “Strap in, hold your breath and delete any assumptions you may have.” The upside? He says, “The rewards are definitely there.”