Performance Plastics
are transporting the world
By Suzanne Fenton

he very term performance plastics embodies the expectations of the transportation industry. It evokes materials that are lightweight for speed, flexible for design, colorful for beauty, impact resistant and anti-microbial for safety, clear for visibility, as well as water and weather resistant. The transportation market is one of the largest manufacturing segments in North America and there are a wealth of potential plastic sheet and film applications for the OEMs and aftermarket segments.

The opportunities for plastic shapes distributors to gain access to the various transportation market segments continue to increase with such megatrends as anti-microbial conditions, increased light-weighting (particularly for the electronic vehicles segments), sound absorption improvements, safety enhancing requirements and the use of sustainable and recycled materials.

Plastic shapes distributors can offer their stocking and fabrication services to multiple levels in the supply chain in the transportation market. As part of the handling of returned scrap and providing regrind plastic, distributors have another possible value-added service in the toolbox.

Material options
When considering the transportation market, land vehicles are usually the first markets that come to mind, with cars and trucks at the top of the list. Which materials would plastics formers use for all those vehicles? Some examples include:

  • Non-carpet flooring using thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) or thermoplastic rubber (TPR)
  • Body panels using acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) or TPO with ultraviolet (UV) resistant films or additives
  • Lighting products using acrylic and polycarbonate (PC) sheet or film
  • Sound absorbing components using ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA)
  • Aftermarket uses such as bumper replacement using utility-grade ABS

Specialty vehicles such as ATVs and UTVs also fall into this category, where ABS, TPO and PC/ABS work well for durable, lower volume parts for fenders and doors. Decorative films such as camouflage prints add customization to a part, increasing the breadth of interest for thermoformers.

Then there are the ever-increasing number of electronic vehicles where TPO and multi-layer sheet of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)/acrylic with anti-stat and fire-resistant properties are needed for the battery trays and covers, such as parts for lithium-ion battery packs, nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery cell enclosures and snap-fit lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery cell packs and for shims used with the batteries. As the autonomous electric-based propulsion systems evolve, the need for materials with multi-electrical (conductivity and insulative) properties increase. Anti-static high-impact polystyrene and anti-static glycol modified polyester terephthalate (PETG) will be needed for parts making up those systems.

Additional opportunities
Target markets are not limited to the automotive industry. The opportunities in the mass transit and aerospace industries continue to expand as well, including, yet again, the electronic vehicle components. Specific components include:

  • Bus/Rail
    • Seating and structural components using ABS, TPO and flame-rated materials PVC/ABS and PVC/acrylic
    • Durable flooring is best served by using flexible TPO
    • Flame-rated sheet used in shims in SAFT batteries
  • Aerospace
    • Seating and structural components such as bulkheads, cockpit and galley areas using PVC/ABS, PVC/acrylic and TPO
    • Flame-rated sheet used in shims in SAFT batteries
    • Cell cast and stretched acrylic are used in military, commercial and general aviation glazing for fixed and rotary wing:
      • Aircraft transparencies
      • Cabin windows
      • Edge-lit illuminated panels

A market that is not quite as widely thought about when it comes to transportation industry is the marine industry. Weather-resistant and durable structural components can be manufactured from foamed ABS, specifically stringers and reinforcements, which is a better solution than plywood. For a truly luxurious look and feel, there is the option for soft-feel PVC over ABS configuration.

edge-lit instrumentation panels
Polycast® acrylic sheet has options for both unshrunk and preshrunk materials such as POLY II, used in edge-lit instrumentation panels. Polycast® UV-SC is a custom cell cast acrylic sheet that blocks out significant near-infrared radiation while maintaining high visible light transmission.
Royalite® R104 foamed soft-feel PVC
Royalite® R104 foamed soft-feel PVC over ABS construction creates a luxurious yet durable dashboard. Other marine applications include Sparalloy™ sheet which provides better performance than plywood and Polycast® cell-cast and stretched acrylic sheet for windows and hatches.
Cell-cast and stretched acrylic sheet is perfect for windows and hatches, which allow for impact-resistance in windshields and light admittance with UV protection. Versatile flexible TPO is perfect for water-resistant durable flooring.
Sustainability is everywhere
Sustainability is not just about recycling. Experts often use a three-legged stool as a symbol for sustainability because the environmental component is not the only factor; there are the social and economic components as well.
Royalite® R57 installed in an airplane window
Sustainable options from Spartech, such as Royalite® R15 is recyclable and has the benefits of excellent physical properties such as higher heat distortion than most PVC/acrylic and PVC/ABS configurations, plus it is easier to form than PC. Aircraft parts made with Royalite® R57 are 10 percent lighter than PVC/acrylic and PVC/ABS, plus R57 has the advantage of flame-rating that meets Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) specifications for aerospace seating.
Infographic showing the benefits of performance plastics to the automotive industry
Infographic showing the benefits of performance plastics to the automotive industry.
Many thermoplastic materials have long been more sustainable than people think because, for one thing, it’s just good business, which reflects the economic factor. In the manufacturing process, regrind use has been refined to a science, using the most regrind possible without loss of the plastics’ structural and performance properties. As for the scrap created when forming parts, most thermoplastic sheet producers and formers have created infrastructures and procedures for returning scrap, which allows for the use of post-consumer regrind.

Light weighting the product lessens the environmental burden as well. Consider these numbers:

Combining the social and economic factors are inherent due to plastic’s durability. Automotiveplastics.com points out that “Anti-odor, anti-microbial fabrics and self-cleaning interiors can mean stretching a product’s useful life.” (www.automotiveplastics.com/mobility-trends/sustainability/)

Driving home the advantages
Plastic sheet provides many opportunities for entry into multiple transportation market segments due to the wide range of product materials and configurations available, and sustainability does not have to be sacrificed to achieve the performance capabilities required to create top quality, long-lasting parts. In addition, plastic sheet is often vacuum formed into parts more efficiently and with less cost than injection molded parts.
Suzanne Fenton is the senior marketing communications manager for Spartech LLC. For more information, contact Spartech LLC at 11650 Lakeside Crossing Court, Maryland Heights, MO 3146-8606 USA; phone (800) 677-4338, suzanne.fenton@spartech.com or www.spartech.com.