Nov 29, 2007

Who went to the K-show?

There were 3,130 exhibitors this year and around 242,000 trade visitors from more than 100 countries...more exhibitors and visitors than 2003…so practically everyone! I was there the first part of the show, and attended numerous company and press events (thanks to Patrick Stapley, one of Plastics Engineering’s editors based in Europe).

I was thoroughly energized by the show. Each company was wearing its “Sunday best.” There was a lot of buzz of new partnerships, mergers, buy-outs and the like. There were all kinds of parts and products being produced on the show floor. I brought only one part back (yes a toilet hinge) but would have loved to have brought home many more. The technology and innovation are truly remarkable!

Machinery, as always, was HUGE! Nissei ASB showed the company’s first all-electric injection stretch blow molding machine. Husky showed the development of a thin-wall container with an in-mold label. Ferromatik Milacron displayed an impressive 450-metric ton press equipped with a Foboha cube mold making an innovative seat hinge for Bemis. Netstal showed an Elion 800 machine for processing polypropylene pipettes on a 36-cavity mold in less than 6 seconds, under clean room conditions. Xaloy rolled out a new energy-saving method of barrel heating for injection press using induction. Zhafir also showcased a new Venus all-electric injection-molding machine. Reifenhauser showed a high performance barrier screw which increased output by 20% and decreased melt temperature by 20°C. Engel showed a water-assisted injection system as the third injection unit on a multi-shot co-injection molding machine. Also new was Engle’s high throughput screening system, which can compound, plasticize materials, as well as mold and test specimens. Cincinnati Extrusion introduced an improved system of thermal insulation which can decrease heat by 30%. Arburg showed the Allrounder machine with 5,000kN clamp force. ABB Robotics showed their exciting IRB140 robot which allows the user to teach the robot by leading it by hand. There was so much machinery…what a wonderful time to shop while all the competition is in one place!

There were new applications and materials. Bekum was running on the floor PET bottles with handles, Sidel SA had some very light single serve bottles, and Ceracon and Demaga Plastics had their Soft Foam Injection Technology, showing a frame seal of cross-linked flexible foam. New materials reflecting increased environmental concerns ranged from sustainable packaging from NNZ BV (Netherlands) to a see-though PC roof on a “Smart for Two” car. It weights 40% less than a comparable glass-roof module lowering fuel consumption and reducing CO2 emissions. Dow had two new PP grades – one a random copolymer for a thin wall injection application. BASF has a polyarylsulfone, a high temperature material that can be sterilized as well as a new polyamide for online coatable car body parts. Also a biodegradable plastic and plastics on based on renewable raw materials. Chemtura introduced organic-based stabilizers which are more effective than calcium alternatives for PVC application.

What a wonderful networking experience the K-show was! An adrenalin rush as you speak and meet with new folks practically every ten minutes with potential for project creation and business opportunities. What an exhilarating time and at the same time what an overwhelming feeling with the size of this show. It’s a good thing it is only once every three years!

Oct 15, 2007

Carbon Offsets

It bothers me enormously when folks purport to care about the environment and then go ahead and buy carbon offsets. The reason it bothers me is because it does not promote individual or company responsibility. For those not familiar with the term it means mitigating greenhouse gas emissions (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) by paying someone else to reduce their emissions. It means I should be the one that quits smoking, but I am buying YOU the patch to quit instead. George Monbiot, an English environmentalist and writer, compared carbon offsets to the practice of purchasing indulgences during the Middle Ages, where people believed they could purchase forgiveness for their sins, instead of repenting.

Tree planting was the initial method used for carbon offsetting, but now renewable energy, energy conservation, and methane capture offsets are increasingly popular. The Kyoto Protocol has sanctioned offsets as a way for governments and private companies to earn carbon credits which can be traded on a marketplace. Carbon offsets are linked with official emission trading schemes, such as the European Union Emission Trading Scheme and the voluntary Chicago Climate Exchange

Tree planting has not worked so well everywhere as folks have planted non indigenous trees destroying eco-systems. Planting forests outside of the tropics does not offset climate change. Reforestation has worked better.

Renewable offsets include wind power, solar power, hydroelectric power and biofuel. One of the renewable offset projects sold in multiple markets is the Te Apiti Wind Farm in New Zealand, which supplies offsets to the Dutch Government, the British bank HSBC and to private citizens.

Energy conservation reduces the overall demand for energy. I know one of the biggest concerns for New York City is making energy-efficient buildings by reducing the amount of energy wasted in buildings through inefficient heating, cooling or lighting systems…in particular replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps ….but this will be a topic for another blog.

So for those of you in the polylactic acid business…make sure your farmers are doing their part to reduce emissions. Farmers know how…but you as the industry should not have to pay for them to reduce their carbon emissions. Doing the right thing should be incentive enough.

Oct 11, 2007

“Dual Purpose” Plastics

Dr. Richard Gross, a professor of chemistry at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York is converting plant oils into “bioplastic” for packaging that can later be used as fuel. The Pentagon has awarded $2.34 million to improve on the process to make it commercial. This would be beneficial for the military, as it could reduce the amount of material it has to ship to soldiers at remote bases, because the plastic would have a dual duty. It would also reduce trash-disposal problems. The vegetable oils Dr. Gross utilizes are already used to make biodiesel and produce a flexible or rigid film for food packaging. Dr. Gross then uses a naturally occurring enzyme to break down the plastic into fuel using mild conditions, such as in the presence of lukewarm tap water. The enzyme, cutinase, is found in nature, made by parasite that eats through shiny surfaces of tree leaves. A gene-splicing company, DNA 2.0, has taken some of the DNA from the parasite and has spliced it into e.coli bacterium, to mass-produce the enzyme. Conversion occurs with the shredding of the plastic and immersion in water with a small amount of enzyme. In 3 to 5 days the biodiesel floats to the top and the process is complete. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) believes the resulting fuel can be poured directly into the fuel tank of a diesel generator to make electricity. The Pentagon calls it the Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery Program (Miser) and I call it “Dual Purpose” for short. I guess we’ll see more of these biodiesels when they become price-competitive with diesel fuel from petroleum or with government subsidies in place.

Why are we having politicians make decisions about scientific matters?

It upsets me enormously to turn on my radio on my way to work (and I listen to the radio a lot as I have a long commute to NYC) and to hear plastics get a bad rap again! San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi announced earlier this year that by next year San Francisco will ban plastic bags from all major grocery stores. These folks who probably never took one chemistry course in their entire lives are determining paper or plastic at the grocery store?!

I honestly believe we should be mindful of our environment, but let us not be drawn in by these mindless statistics thrown on news broadcasts. They do a quick flash to landfills and how these bags are not biocompostable to how much petroleum we use (180 million bags a year are used in San Francisco). Polyethylene (PE) bags may sit for who knows how long, probably many years in a landfill, however, they are harmless. Less than 1% of the volume in landfills is occupied by these products, and only fractions of one percent of petroleum reserves produce all PE products.

What I find interesting is that paper is touted as the “desirable” material, or in San Francisco, they are touting biocompostable plastic bags. Yet both do not biodegrade as readily when disposed of in airless landfills. Paper also has the disadvantage of occupying more space, taking more energy to produce, and “we’re killing our trees”.

The decision to ban the polystyrene clamshells from McDonalds in the 1980s was another political decision. I used to work for Huntsman in the Expanded Polystyrene business and felt that one too. At the time there were rightful concerns around the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But CFCs were replaced by pentane or carbon dioxide to expand the polystyrene. Today a researcher from the Oprah show approached Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society in Canada, with concerns of residual styrene leaching into food from containers. There are concerns around styrene as a potential carcinogen; however, studies of workers exposed to the chemical have not shown increased cancer rates.

For those of you who really care about the environment, please consult a scientist who also cares, and who will gather data to balance the pros and cons to give you an informed opinion.

Jul 30, 2007

Does China or India offer the best long-term growth opportunities for the plastics industry?

There is major manufacturing and research migration headed to China and India. China is the key emerging market for polymer growth today. In my opinion it is India however that offers the best long-term growth opportunities.

If you look at natural gas costs they are lower in India than in China. The American Chemical Society published comparative natural gas costs around the world in 2005. If we look at India versus China the cost is US$3.10 as compared to US$5.05 per million BTUs.

There are many other indicators which favor China. If we look at the Labor Markets (CIA Factbook 2007) it is 800,000,000 in China’s as compared to 500,000,000 in India. 500,000 engineering degrees were awarded in China out of 1 million engineering degrees awarded globally in materials science and engineering. Also according to a National Research Council report published in 2005, international corporations are expected to spend most of their R&D in China, U.S. and India in that order. Real GDP growth rates in 2006 were 10.5% in China versus 8.5% in India and for 2007 are expected to be 10% and 7.4% respectively.

So can this amazing growth continue? Are there any other concerns besides IP protection?

Some skeptics say this tremendous growth in China will continue until the Olympics. What do you think?

Outside the polymer world, if we look at retailing markets, according to Euromonitor International's latest forecasts, the Indian retailing market will grow in value terms by a total of 39.6% between 2006 and 2011, averaging growth of almost 7% a year in comparison to the Chinese market which is predicted to grow by 30.5%, averaging 5.5% per year over the same period. India is attractive for retail development as it is a relatively untapped market due to current legal restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI). The good news for international players is that India's restrictive legislative environment is changing to their benefit. In 2007, the Minister for Indian Commerce announced plans to allow up to 51% FDI in the retailing of consumer electronics, sports goods and accessories.

In stark contrast to India, international investment in the Chinese retailing market is now entering its second stage of development and it is already proving difficult to find attractive sites for expansion in the major centers of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Special Economic Zones where foreign retailers are already well established.

Jul 3, 2007

Thomas The Tank Recall

I am “Busting my Buffers” over the Thomas Recall

My son Alexander loves Thomas the Tank Engine. A typical Thomas the Tank Engine story is a little morality play about hubris. Over the last 3 years my husband and I, as well as many of our friends, have bought him numerous wooden railway toys, DVDs etc. On June 13th, R2C Corp announced a recall of 26 models of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends wooden railway toys. The recall concerns approximately 1.5 million toys sold between January 2005 and June 2007. The toys are being recalled because surface paints on the recalled products contain lead. Lead is toxic if ingested by young children – and who of you who has children have not seen the most impossible things go in their mouths?

The toy trains are manufactured in China, and one of the factories that makes them has been using lead paint for the last couple of years. The company that owns the Thomas brand, HIT Entertainment, holds the rights to a number of popular characters, including Barney and Bob the Builder, and then licenses the toy manufacturing to companies like RC2. RC2 also makes toys for giants like Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Street.

HIT has otherwise acted as if it has nothing to do with the situation and has expressed no regrets publicly. I say as a consumer that we let HIT know that it cannot go without punishment for ducking responsibility for the safety of its products.

This is a story about the realities of offshoring. Over the last two decades or so, American companies have generally followed a bilateral outsourcing strategy of moving as much of their manufacturing as possible to places where salaries are lower than in the U.S and secondly, the companies have distanced themselves from their overseas production. They usually don’t own the factories and refuse to say much about them. I read an interesting article in the New York Times by Leonhardt, who suggests that for many businesses, outsourcing has simply grown too big to stay behind the curtain. What happens in Chinese factories determines how good — how reliable and how safe — many products are. So there is no way for executives to distance themselves from China without also distancing themselves from their own products.

I am asking the help of our government to play a role here by inspecting more of the items coming into this country. This is not the first recall or quality issue we have heard of recently. What do you think? I can’t do it all!

Paris Air Show - June 25, 2007

The Paris Air Show is the world’s leading biennial air and space show going on right now from the 18th through 21st June for industry, government and military visitors and open to the general public from the 22nd to the 24th June. At the last event in 2005, there were 480,000 visitors, including 223,000 trade visitors and exhibitors, and 206 official delegations from 88 countries.

Aircraft makers Boeing and EADS (Airbus) are both investing heavily in developing green technologies. A lot of this investment will be devoted to finding uses for new, lighter materials to increase fuel efficiency. Both companies are looking to using composites in at least half the structural components of their latest wide-body jets, the 787 Dreamliner and the A350-XWB. Recent advances in composite technology are coming at an appropriate time when climate concerns are being addressed globally. Mr. Giovanni Bisignani, the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, explains that although the airline industry accounts for 2% of carbon dioxide emissions, increasing demand for air travel are expected to raise the aviation contribution to 3% by 2050.

The French plastics processing industry generated a turnover of USD 36,974 million in 2005 with over 3800 companies and a workforce of over 155,700. The French plastics industry ranks second in Europe after Germany and fourth in the world after the United States, Japan and Germany. The trend toward alliances continues: today multinational corporations and SMEs employing more than 100 persons account for 75 percent of the French plastics industry’s sales.

The French Plastics Industry Association estimates that 2006 polymer sales grew 2 percent.
In 2005, French production of processed plastics products was broken down as follows: semi-finished products (34 percent), packaging (30 percent), technical parts (18 percent), building products (13 percent), and miscellaneous (5 percent). In terms of sales, however, the picture is different, with technical parts accounting for 38 percent, packaging for 23 percent, building products for 17 percent, semi-finished products for 16 percent and miscellaneous for 6 percent.

The European Union – primarily Germany, Italy and Belgium - accounts for 75 percent of plastic products imported by France. The main non-EU suppliers of plastics products to France are China, the U.S., and Switzerland. In 2005, the U.S. sold USD 337 million in plastic products to France, mostly technical parts worth USD 166 million, semi-finished products for USD 114 million, packaging USD 48 million and building products USD 9 million.

The Air Show is also a forum for lesser-known players offering an array of high-tech gadgets to improve flying. One of them is Warrenton, Va.-based Athena Technologies, which makes flight-control and guidance systems for unmanned aircraft.
Unmanned military planes already fly over war zones and patrol borders, but Athena hopes to bring its products into the commercial and civilian market.

How comfortable are you with taking your next commercial flight without a pilot?
Are you attending the show? What new innovations got your attention?

Jun 8, 2007