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The Art of Plastics Design
Conference 18th -19th October 2005, Berlin, Germany


A few examples of what plastic design brings to new developments

The search is for aspect, color and others, touch, both sensory and functional effects.

Among the sensory effects, visual effects can be obtained by coloring, metallizing, coating, co-extruding, printing, built-in surface and 3-D effects, compounding. Touch effects are increasingly used, even smell, and noise for innovative applications and appeal.

Many functional effects are also put into plastics, ranging from UV protection, barrier, controlled light transmission, and many others.

In fact, increasingly, there hardly is any application of plastics that is not, more or less, designed for specific effects. The ever changing and ever expanding range of plastics materials and applications rests on these old and new concepts of finishing, away from the raw state of the materials.

Special effects have become an intrinsic part of plastics. When comparing plastics to most other materials, indeed it is the infinite variety of colors, textures, appearances and custom designed functions that make plastics different from the traditional materials, metals, wood, paper, glass and textiles. Among traditional materials, there only are textiles for which color and other finishing have been very important, ever since civilization began.

There are thus many examples of plastics enhancement

Examples of enhancing colors

The first special effect imparted to plastics, and still now the most important, is coloring. Originally, plastics were black, or dark brown, or white, or, even worse, transparent, the invisible being. Then, colors came, and colors are creativity. Remember the first mass-produced cars, the Ford Model T that “could be of any color as long as it was black”. Now car colors are almost custom selected.

Colors are exclusivity, many manufacturers of plastics household articles and toys have developed their own distinctive color range for their product. The widest range of colors and special effects are the future. Special effects now are strongly associated with product innovations.

There is not only color, but pearlescent hues and the most recent, for instance the GE Lexan Light diffusion PC, to add a translucent effect to colorful surfaces, a trend started a few years ago by the iMac computer from Apple. Now the trend is of interest to small personal care appliances. GE Plastics, also, brings some black and white effects to the line of Visualfx resins. There also is the Earth Elements, with a very wide range of original colors, textures and aspects.

Bayer Plastics launched in 2002 the Fantasia color and special effects program. The program features five separate techniques and an array of colors and special effect options. The range of colors and special effects are designed to give products a unique look and feel, based on their composition and how light reflects off their shape. Within the Fantasia program, the Faria technique uses film insert molding, FIM, to customize products with color, graphic and even tactile effects.


Active packaging

Active packaging is a relatively new catch-all mantra that includes all that can be added to materials and finished packages to make them perform functions and protection never heard of just a few years ago. Increasingly, active ingredients are incorporated directly into the film substrates. For instance, active packaging may cover oxygen scavengers, and emitters, moisture absorbers, modified atmosphere packs, carbon dioxide scavengers and emitters, ethanol emitters, antibacterial films, flavor enhancers, ethylene scavengers and emitters, lactose and cholesterol removers, temperature control packaging.

Modified atmosphere packaging, MAP, involves the combination of different resins in multilayer structures to produce a carefully tailored balance of gases, typically oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, inside a food or beverage package. Every food has an ideal combination of gases in its surroundings that prolongs its freshness and shelf life. Although oxygen can lead to food spoilage, it also keeps packaged meats red, prevents growth of anaerobic bacteria and maintains respiration in packaged fruits and vegetables. Nitrogen keeps out oxygen when too much of that gas can cause food spoilage. And carbon dioxide retards bacteria and mold growth in most packaged foods.


Smart packaging

Smart, or Intelligent packaging, is an even more uncertain definition. It covers packs that incorporate a disposable device, whether electronic or not, which interacts with the consumer or its environment. Many techniques are used to provide intelligent packaging, closely associated with the plastic packages that have become the vast majority in practically all applications. Intelligent packaging devices become an integral part of plastic packaging, for instance, RFID, EMID, printed electronics, thermochronic inks and laminates, digital watermarks, chemical and protein based indicators.


Caps and closures

Now, plastics account for 70-75 % of total caps and closures worldwide. Together with this still increasing share against metal, the design and functionalities of plastics closures are ever expanding. The success of plastics versus metal for closures of all types is essentially due to the development of plastics containers, at the expense of the traditional metal and glass containers. Moreover technical advances have permitted plastic closures to replace many metal closures in classical glass packaging applications, like food and wine.

However, the most noticeable trend in caps and closure is the multiplication of creative designs to impart new functions to the closures, otherwise a very plain product.


Electrical and electronic applications may need modified conductivity

One of the growth areas in plastics is the search for some positive conductivity to prevent internal static discharge or to shield delicate components from external electromechanical interference. The main difficulty is to impart long term or permanent antistatic properties to plastics without migration or leaching. A wide range of additives can be used in thermoplastic compounds to obtain the required degree of conductivity. The most popular are reinforcements, such as fibers of carbon or metal, or powders. A number of antistatic agents can be added to plastics, before or during processing. Antistatic agents can be defined as internal or external, or by chemistry, anionic, cationic and non anionic.

The main conductive polymers are ABS, PVC, PE, PPS and PC, for an estimated current world total requirement of over 500 000 tons of base plastics.


Light diffusing plastics

This already old development is of interest with PMMA sheet, bringing a sort of special third dimension to sheet as a light source. For instance PMMA cast sheet can be illuminated on the whole sheet surface, as a result of light waves passing through the edges of the sheet.

This means that smaller and lower power lighting sources can be installed, bringing energy savings and construction cost reduction in installations such as urban furniture, poster frames, signs. Ultra slim profile frames can be made, with a wide choice of fluorescent tubes, optical fibers and LED. Further costs saving, and easier reading, are also achieved. Maintenance is easier by placing the light sources at the edge of the frames rather than in the conventional way of illuminated panels.

A major development is also to be with LEP, light emitting polymers. This leads to low cost, high quality color displays for mobile phones and other portable customer electronics. They are to replace the current LCD displays that are power hungry, thicker, heavier and limited in contrast and overall image. LEP displays use less power, because they do not need to be backlit, a process in which most of the light is absorbed before it hits the eye. The primary LEP candidates are polyaniline, polythiophene, polypyrrole, polymers that were developed in the seventies, but did not find commercial applications then.

OLED, Organic Light Emitting Diodes are a new way to generate light, using organic materials rather than the complex crystalline structure of the traditional LED. OLED are used for the production of flat panels displays that include cell phones, PDA, monitors and televisions. OLED lead to a new generation of flexible and formable ultra thin displays, which ultimately will be incorporated into the walls and furniture. Large area flexible displays will be easily rolled up for storage and transport. Soon to come transparent displays will be used in shop windows and many yet unknown potential.


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