Product designers and engineers visit Inventables to find new materials for their projects. One kind of vendor that lists products on our website is called a plastic compounder. To educate our buyer community on these companies we are doing a multi-part series on them. Today we talked with Kirk Fratzke, the marketing coordinator for RTP Company. RTP Co. is a plastic compounder with global locations that include their headquarters in Minnesota, USA with additional facilities in Europe, China, and Singapore.
Inventables: I’m familiar with plastic compounders but for some of the engineers that visit Inventables they might only be familiar with companies like DuPont and their engineering polymers division. For someone that does not have experience in the world of compounding how would you explain what RTP Co. does?
KF: In a nutshell, RTP Co. is called upon by product manufacturers when the "virgin" or "natural" form of a plastic material is does not meet the engineering requirements of a particular design. In a given calendar year RTP Co. will manufacture over 6000 unique compounds for clients. Some of the more commonly used materials include Polypropylene (PP), Nylons, and Polycarbonate (PC).
Inventables: That is a little confusing because some of the major resin suppliers claim to do to some compounding if their virgin material doesn't meet a customers requirement.
KF: That's true it is a bit confusing. We do custom compounding, that means we will formulate a material to exactly meet the requirement a customer needs. The bigger resin suppliers typically have specific versions of their "off the shelf" resins that include specific a percentage of an additive they will sell. We are referred to as a custom compounder because our business is made-to-order which means we can accommodate small runs.
Inventables: What are the main areas that you compound plastics in?
KF: We really focus on compounding plastic in the following five areas:
1. Coloring - Adding pigments to get the exact right color
2. Conductivity - Making plastic conductive, typically for antistatic applications. Sometimes these compounds get into the range of EMI shielding to block radio waves
3. Flame retardant - Some plastics are inherinetly flame retardant however, if you take a blow torch to any plastic it will still burn. We include additives that prevent plastic from being an ignition source in an over heating situation.
4. Structural - We put glass fiber into plastic to increase it's stiffness. A less expensive approach from a structural standpoint can also include the addition of Earth derived minerals into plastic.
5. Wear resistant or internally lubricated - We put lubrication into the plastic to reduce the wear over time. PTFE (TeflonTM) is one of the most common additives used for these application.
Inventables: You mentioned in a given year you will sell 6000 different materials which come from about 60 base resins. How is an engineer to know which one they need?
KF: We start the discussion with the engineer with cost because that will often be the biggest limitation in a project. With a clear understanding of what the engineer can spend on a given part it will naturally eliminate a number of materials. From there we look at what kind of temperatures the plastic is going to be exposed to. Then we will think through other environmental conditions for example if the part will be exposed to oil from human skin or in contact with gasoline. Once you get an understanding of the requirements of a particular application you can narrow the options down into a family resins.
Inventables: I read on your website that HiPer Technology, Inc. a Kansas based corporation that develops and manufactures ATV accessories such as carbon fiber racing wheels for motor sport vehicles. Racing fans know these as HiPer Racing Wheels. How did that project come about?
KF: When regular materials couldn't take the abuse you might expect on an ATV the team at HiPer Technology went looking for stronger materials for their bead lock ring. In this case the rest of the wheel rim was made out of carbon fiber and they wanted a similar composite material. They were not interested in metal because weight is an issue on an ATV. They make high end ATV accessories and when are able to say you use composites it implies high tech. Their products are used by folks on the professional circuits. Long fiber compounds are used a lot for metal replacement. In this case they knew of our sales rep, materials from other sources weren’t working so started looking for a customized material. We aren't always the first call. Typically our customers start with something basic and they keep moving up the value chain until they find a solution that meets their requirements.
Inventables: How long should an engineer budget from the first time they contact you with an idea until they have parts shipping?
KF: To get from an idea to an active application typically takes 6-24 months. If when they first contact us they are just researching it can be a long time. However if they have a material that is failing and they need to replace it things go much quicker. Everyone has different product development cycles. The process typically starts with us talking about requirements. We recommend a material and get some feedback from the customer. When everything checks out we produce a sample. Other steps can include making a mold, conducting a molding trial to produce parts that can be used to determine if the material fulfills their mechanical requirements. Then once you get all your materials approved and specified you start ramping up for production.
Inventables: In the next few years where do you see growth for RTP Co.?
KF: We're seeing a lot of growth in automotive because of the need for weight reduction to improve fuel economy.
Healthcare is a growing market because it is an industry growing worldwide. The population of United States is aging and China is getting better access to medical care.
A lot is going on in the energy market because the government has put a big push into renewable sources like solar and wind power. The big windmill blades are not made from thermoplastics, but it is such a growth area there is actually a shortage of carbon fiber because they are making so many windmill blades.
Aerospace and defense is a growth area anytime there is a war going on.
Things that used to be industrial are moving into consumer markets. Home treatment devices are becoming more popular in heathcare. Consumerizing of insulin management systems, the devices people use to read the sugar levels in their blood. Things that used to be only in the hospital are becoming more consumer oriented.