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Plastics News" / July 2010

Thermoformers innovate to survive

Under the Ssogan "Thermoforming the American Way", two thermoforming industry specialists from the United States have presented their view of status of the North American thermoforming industry at the SPE European Thermoforming Division's biannual conference, held this year in Atwerp.

In his presentation on "surviving and thriving", James Waddell, Managing director of Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based consultancy Plastic Concepts and Innovations LLC, described how the U.S. industry suffered in 2009. He said machine orders were down 60-80 percent, tooling orders down 70-90 percent and customer orders 30-60 percent lower. This resulted in a reduction in the number of thermoformers from 18 to 12 in the San Francisco area alone - "and some will not be around by the end of 2010", Wadell predicted.

Those companies that surviced the downturn did so by becoming both more innovative and efficient in use of resources, Waddell said. This has resulted in better mold design for optimized  cooling, more complex forming techniques, greater use of syntactic foam plug assists, third movement plug action for pressure forming, as well as use of more advanced materials such as thermoplastic polyolefins and composites for high cold-weather-impact strength.

Also, as volumes have dropped during the recession in many areas, Waddell suggested that this has benefited thermoforming, to the disadvantage of injection molding, due to better associated utilization of the lower tooling costs, while still obtaining "equivalent aesthetics".

Waddell cited a chief design engineer at General Motors Co. who had originally said that exterior body parts would not be thermoformed in 2009, but tooling was being built after all for a relatively large GM Chevrolet HHR (Heritage High Roof) crossover-car-Stone-guard Project involving as many as 450.000 parts per year.

Thermoforming improvements also have been made with advanced quartz, ceramic and halogen heating systems and enhanced heat controls, Waddell noted.

Here, Manfred Geiss of German machinery producer Geiss AG responded by referring to attempts to come up with a "dream machine" when visiting the United States together with Jacob Kunststofftechnik 27 years ago. At the time, Geiss noted that "only a few people in America understood what I said 27 years ago. I do not understand why you use machines with a tremendous amount of space, tremendous use of material and tremendous energy consumption. Is a machine using five times the amount of energy a right machine to survice?

"Nothing changed [in the United States] in the past 27 years," he said, "but things are getting better with more closed-chamber machines and halogen heating lamps."

Waddell responded by explaining that there hase been little incentive in the past to use less energy, on account of relatively low energy costs in the United States. Facing criticism from Geiss about slow incorporation of closed-chamber machines in the U.S., Waddell admitted that although machines do not have a sheet-sag problem, open-frame forming is more versatile, and that when it comes to twin-sheet thermoforming, this can be done with two sheets in one frame, or on a large rotary three-or four-station machine with ist high-speed advantage.

Opportunities arise

Electric-vehicle development, as well as U.S. federal economic stimulus measures in transportation and infrastructure improvements such as railway modernization, high-speed railway system development and wind energy should be beneficial for thermoforming, Waddell said. He pointed to the recent opening of two wind-turbine plants that use thermoformed covers for the turbines.

And there will be further development in both roll-fed and cut-sheet thermoforming with the establishment of a thermoforming center at Williamsport, Pa.-based Penn College, Waddell said.

Manfred Geiss said that Geiss AG is supplying a machine for the Center and that "it is the only Location in the United States where it will be possible to test materials on different types of thermoforming machines."

Ending on an optimistic note, Waddell said that "all is not doom and gloom."

But he drew upon an anecdote of a gazelle and a lion waking up in the moring. Both have to run fast - the gazelle in order not to be killed by the lion, and the Lion so that it will not starve.

"It doesn't matter whether you are the lion or the gazelle," Waddell said, "but when the sun comes up, you had better start running."

That time may have arrived, as Waddell said heavy-gauge thermoforming orders have increased by some 10-20 percent in 2010, compared with the 20 percent fall from 2008 to 2009. Machine orders also are up and tooling slightly,too. Waddell added, although the pickup has not been rapid.

The American way

Phil Driskill has years of experience at thermoforming machinery and tooling suppliers and has been working since 2000 as thermoforming tool engineer based in Alsip, III., for Berry Plastics Corp. In the second "Thermoforming the American Way" paper at the SPE division's conference. Driskill presented polypropylene trim-in-place tooling as a means of meeting challenges of thermoforming high-Performance PP food containers.

Driskill said that "we Americans have looked to Europe for inspiration and found trim-in-place thermoforming - but we also saw room for improvement." As he was seeking solutions to cover single orders for 200 million items or more annually, the solution was either to use many traditonal European machines, or to develop and use fewer but larger trim-in-place machines.

There is an advantage for customers using high-speed filling lines, in that trim-in-place forming results in trim that is perfectly concentric with the formed portion of the container, so that a high quality (such as with injection molded containers) is obtained, yet with the lower weight and cost of a thermoformed container, Driskill said.

Aside from the need to ensure tight tolerances of 0,064 millimeters on the gap between male and female cutters so that thermal expansion does not damage or shorten the life, Driskill described how use of high-speed servo-drive motors with accurate, high-strength machine frames and precise guidance have combined to make the forming platform extremely stable.

This, in turn, has increased the competitive edge while nevertheless improving part quality, he said. Today's machines have increased output from 28.800 parts per hour in the past to 168.000 parts per hour, raising maximum annual output from 228 million to 1,3 billion cups.

Driskill again paid compliments to the European thermoforming industry: "We learned everything we know from Europe." But he said he is not impressed with tools from Asia, saying "they are technically not comparable. All tooling I have seen in Asia have been crude copies."

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