Text Meinolf Droege ––– Photography
In the past, it was typically cost cutting or new technical requirements that prompted companies to investigate and then use alternative plastics as a solution. Particularly since the start of the pandemic, that picture has changed. Many plastics have limited availability – from basic grades to specialties – and this is increasingly leading to supply interruptions. The option of switching material offers greater flexibility and thus security for the supply chain. Using higher proportions of recycled materials and bioplastics also makes it possible to lower the carbon footprint of more and more applications.
In almost every application, the plastics to be used are specified with great precision. Exact descriptions of everything from the “recipe” to the name of the supplier are defined before series production begins, and only this version is sampled and approved by the customer. The material can therefore only be changed with the agreement of the customer and after another inspection. Especially when it comes to more complex requirements such as high dielectric strength, special surface effects or critical mechanical performance data, getting subsequent approval for more materials generally involves lengthy, complex processes.
Speeding these up massively while still arriving at an effective outcome is one of the specialities of plastics processor LKH, based in Heiligenroth. “Since the start of the current crisis, we have implemented more than 20 material requalifications in efficient, largely standardised processes, thus safeguarding the deliverability of around 150 articles for our customers,” explains Volker Hindermann, Managing Director at LKH.
The company’s particular materials expertise is the ace up the sleeve here. Unlike typical plastics processors, LKH has long been making intensive use of the materials market in complex conversion projects with high technical requirements – since well before the pandemic. “On the one hand, our expertise includes wide-ranging knowledge of plastics chemistry. On the other hand, and partly based on our own experience, we have built up a database for simulations and therefore comprehensive design and mould know-how. We put all that to good use when it comes to working with customers and suppliers on material specification. This also applies to the use of recycled plastics,” says Thomas Ritter, Head of Engineering at LKH.
CARBON FOOTPRINTS – WHAT IS LKH DOING?
Markets are increasingly placing two requirements on distributers of plastic products. First, more and more customers want to buy products with a clear conscience. Carbon footprints are increasingly a factor when it comes to purchasing decisions. Companies that are able to boost the profiles of their products in this way gain a significant market advantage.
On top of that come more stringent statutory requirements. For example, the German Packaging Act that came into effect in January 2022 stipulates that the proportion of recycled materials in single-use beverage bottles must reach at least 77 per cent by the end of 2025, and 90 per cent three years later. It is already clear that other sectors will likely also be obliged to increase the proportion of recycled materials they use in the future.
LKH proactively made this a priority and developed a practical, fully tested package of measures. Using recycled materials is a complex matter. Depending on their type, mechanically critical parts, for example, typically require that the anticipated characteristics are tested in advance.
Particularly exacting demands for surface quality can also pose a challenge. Through its bioplastics, LKH offers another way of improving environmental credentials and decreasing dependence on plastics based on mineral oil. These bioplastics are created using renewable raw materials – either completely or in part. Some of them are also industrially compostable. LKH is already manufacturing the first components to have a much smaller carbon footprint thanks to this approach. The new “paper injection moulding” procedure uses no plastics at all. As a result, production facilities can be completely independent of the plastics raw material market, cutting carbon emissions hugely.
SWITCHING BETWEEN MATERIALS FASTER
Whether for technical reasons or because of an interrupted supply chain, switching a product to a plastic other than the one originally selected is a complex procedure, especially for more demanding products. Typically, these kinds of products are specified and approved for just one particular type of plastic from one manufacturer. Even before the current crisis, LKH had developed a stringent process for switching products to other materials faster and reliably. The procedure has been tested in lots of projects and can also be used to shrink a product’s carbon footprint, navigate supply bottlenecks or cut costs.