Is there any further innovation left in the plastics industry?

Paul Boughton

Plastics are a critical part of not only our companybut also our individual lives. To a large extentplastics define our standard of living. It touches every aspect of society.

Our transportation is lightersaferand more durable and fuel efficient due to plastics. Plastics preserve our foodinsulate our homesenclose the electronics we rely onand enable an unprecedented standard of care in medicine.

Given the tremendous growth and innovation over the past few decadesone has to wonder – is this a mature industry? Can we continue to invent and grow beyond GDP?

A review of recent plastic inventions casts doubt on our ability to sustain previous levels of success. Polyketonesour syndiotactic polystyreneand polylactic acid (see box) have failed to produce profitable growth platforms. In partthis is due to the exceptional robustness of the previous innovations. These new materials simply do not offer enough unique properties or cost advantages to displace incumbent materials or enable new applications. In shortthey do not have a compelling value proposition.

The plastics industry provides value when we bring our customers productivity or dramatically new functionality. Eliminating secondary operationspart consolidation and increased performance are the hallmarks of our success.

So back to the initial question – is there any innovation left in plastics? A corollary question I am often asked is: “Will we invent a new polymer?” My opinion is nonot if you define a polymer in terms of practical fundamental linkages connecting the monomers.

I believe the organic chemists have done a pretty thorough job of mapping out all the various ways to link carbonoxygenhydrogennitrogen and sulphur atoms. That is the reason our undergraduate organic chemistry text books are so thick. They did a nice job mapping the basic chemistry. Polycarbonatepolyesterspolyamidepolyimidespolyetherspolyolefineand so on are all well known.

So I don’t believe there will be any fundamental new polymersbased on linkages.

HoweverI would contend that it does not mean innovation is dead in plastics. Firstwe continue to find new monomers. While the linkages might not changethe molecules we put between the linkages can give us new families of products with higher heatimproved ductilitystrengthoptical propertiesand more. One only has to look at the number of new patents granted to see the richness of work going on in this area.

Secondlyfiller and compounding technology continue to advance. We change the modulus ductility balanceadd conductivityand create startling new visual effects through the use of fillers and additives.

Thirdwe can change the molecular architecture. Think of monomers as bricks. Any mason knows how to put the bricks together which defines the structure more than the individual bricks.

For example take our VERSIFY plastomers and elastomers. This is a range of specialty propylene ethylene semicrystalline copolymers. Propylene and ethylene are very old. Polyolefins based on these materials were among the first plastics. After decades of developmentwhat is left? Plenty.

By changing the way these old molecules are put togetherwe can create new materials. The unique molecular architecture of VERSIFY provides filmsfibres and molded parts with excellent clarity and glosssuperb elasticityflexibilitysoftness and compatibility.

These innovations were made possible not by new building blocks or linkagesbut by a new catalyst allowing precise control of how we assemble our monomers.

These improved properties resulted in commercial sales of 20millionpounds in two years following introduction.

By comparison it took six years for acetyl to reach this level. Polycarbonatepolyamideand PBT took ten years. All from some very old molecules.

Finally our industry continues to develop new ways to form our existing materials. Plastics are versatile and readily processed. Direct compounding and other new forming technology allows us to expand the array of processing options.
I am very optimistic that there is much room for continued innovation. We will certainly face challengesnot the least of which is unprecedented increases in raw material costs.

My Dow colleague Charlie KresgeR&D Vice President for the Basic Plastics & Chemicals portfolio and Hydrocarbons & Energysays: “We compete in a world where most people call our feedstocks fuel. To continue to prosper we must continue to innovate.”

It seems every week I get another email or solicitation to participate in an innovation seminar. Everyone is frustrated with the pace of innovation and there are hoards of consultants trying to help us improve.

We are obsessed with benchmarking and looking for the magic process. There are week-long conferences on measuring R&D.

So what does it take to be an innovator? It is simple – great people. Nothing else matters if you don’t have a talentedwell-trained work force. No process can make up for a lack of creativity.