July/August 2000

The Next Wave

NPE 2000 – The Plastics Showcase

by Walter Morham

Since 1946 the National Plastics Exhibition (NPE) has been held every three years, growing in size and popularity as the plastic industry’s importance has grown worldwide. This year’s exhibition was held June 19-23 at McCormick Place in Chicago, drawing more than 90,000 in attendance.

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) Year 2000 report indicates that the plastics industry continues to prosper, with employment up 25 percent since 1994 to 1.5 million jobs and 15 percent being export-related. Plastics shipment in the United States reached $304 billion producing an annual trade surplus of $5.2 billion. One major reason for this performance is due to major industries, such as the automotive, continuously substituting plastics for wood, metals and glass.


New Adventures in Plastic Automotive Glazing

At previous plastics exhibitions displays showing various plastic materials as matter substitutes for automotive glass have been onhand. At NPE 2000, however, it was obvious that many of the technical hurtles had been overcome with the formation of a new company marketing automotive glazings. Exatec LLC of Wixom, Mich., and Cologne, Germany, is a joint venture pursuing the development of a plastic alternative to glass. An abrasion-resistant, coated, polycarbonate automotive glazing presents multiple value-added benefits, according to James Staaragarrd, director of market development at Exatec.

The GE Plastics and Bayer pavilions prominently displayed the new polycarbonate (PC) automotive side- and back-lite glazing. At this time, windshields are not being offered due to the high level of abrasion, pitting and scratch resistance they require over a long period of time. Additionally, plastic glazing has not yet reached the advanced level of resistance required for that application.

Alternative Technologies

While PC is a strong, impact-resistant, clear plastic material that does not shatter like glass, its surface scratches easily. Exatec has investigated several methods in hopes of solving this problem.

Bayer, for example, has developed a nanomer wet silicone coating that can be applied to a plastic window glazing like a paint, and then dried and cured. While simple, the process currently takes about three hours to complete—too long for economical manufacturing and it has to be refined.

Likewise, GE Plastics has developed a plasma deposition method where the adhesion-primed PC 3/6 mm injection-molded window glazing is placed in a vacuum chamber and a thin siloxane inner coating is applied to both surfaces to provide weatherability. A modified silicone outer shell coating is then sputtered on both sides to provide glass-like abrasion protection that meets U.S. federal safety regulations. The entire production process takes about one hour to complete, still too long, and also requires refinement.

Product Value-Added Benefits

Both processes will continue to be investigated to reduce production time. The goal is to reach one glazing unit per minute. However, the plasma deposition method is getting the most attention, since it has the greatest potential for production time reduction.

Injection-molded PC glazing will never be as inexpensive as glass. However, it is important to look at the total cost of the installed unit, not just the cost of the part. At the total cost level DFMA/simplified assembly will significantly reduce total production costs. The value-added advantages of polycarbonate will be in the areas of weight reduction, safety and design.

Up to 50 percent weight reduction can be expected using PC in the same thickness as glass, for example, 3- to 6- mm. With glazing weight reduction comes improved fuel economy and an important safety bonus feature. Glazing weight is centered in the upper half of the vehicle. Therefore, by substituting PC, the center of gravity of the vehicle is lower, providing enhanced stability on curves and wet or icy roads to prevent rollovers.

Another important feature is rollover safety. Crash testing has demonstrated that polycarbonate sustains only minor fractures in rollovers and unfortunately, windows do not pop out or shatter like glass. In fact, PC has been demonstrated as stronger than metal and able to prevent total collapse of the cabin structure. In a similar test, all glass windows shattered with roof collapse.

Design innovation is a new marketing feature available with PC. Curved and custom shapes can be designed that are not possible in glass. Molded-in features such as a rear window defroster can be economically integrated. Two-shot injection molding can be employed to provide colored edging and other decorative effects.


Future Development

The first shipment of 60 windows has been made to an OEM for validation tests. Staargaard advises that current plans are to market the new polycarbonate windows by late 2001 or 2002.

Exatec intends to enter North American, European and Asian markets. Since government regulations are not quite as strict as in the United States, Europe is a major immediate marketing target.

Of interest to automotive suppliers is the decision by Exatec to license other companies to be manufacturers and marketers of PC automotive window glazing. It is our assumption that the interest of GE Plastics (Lexan) and Bayer (Makrolon) as major suppliers of polycarbonate resin lies in the expanded resin market potential.  

Walter Morham is vice president of International Plastics Consultants Corporation (IPCC) in Stamford, Conn. Visit http://www.Exatec.de/do/en/frame.asp


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