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Polymers Center adding capabilities, capacity

May 24, 2023

The Polymers Center of Excellence in North Carolina can study viscosity, get a shear rate curve for a polymer sample in to design a mold or die, determine the exact composition of a sample part and analyze a part that has failed.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based Polymers Center of Excellence installed its sixth extrusion line and is planning a 12,000-square-foot addition as it adds capabilities and capacity for instruction, research and trial manufacturing.

Established in 1999 by the state of North Carolina, the nonprofit center provides technical support and assistance in the development of emerging technologies in the plastics industry with a focus on custom compounding, physical and analytical testing, injection molding and workforce development.

The newly installed 40-millimeter Leistritz machine equips the center with the latest compounding technology and increases capacity, according to Tom McHouell, president of the affiliated Polymers Technology Center, which is housed in the same space.

"We will have the ability to compound high temperature engineering polymers that we have not in the past," McHouell said in an email.

Having a sixth extrusion line will give the center another scale machine for developmental work and help decrease lead times.

"Initially it will be set up to strand pelletize, but we will be able to underwater pelletize in the near future," McHouell said.

The center now has five twin-screw extruders — four built by Leistritz — and one single-screw extruder for single-layer cast or blown film trials.

A 21 mm twin extruder in the lab is the only twin that is not a Leistritz. The others are Leistritz's 27 mm Maxx, 40 mm Maxx and two 50 mm Maxx machines.

The polymers center also has three injection molding machines — a 55-ton Arburg, 55-ton Shibaura and 85-ton Engel — for making test specimens for the lab, prototype molding and process setup as well as Wittmann machines, including a granulator for regrind studies for customers, a dryer used for moisture-sensitive resin and a robot for picking molded parts out of the machine.

For materials analysis, the center's customers can study viscosity, get a shear rate curve for a polymer sample in to design a mold or die, determine the exact composition of a sample part and analyze a part that has failed, according to Executive Director Phil Shoemaker.

"Sometimes our customers suspect that the feedstocks that they are using are not consistent. We can determine whether they are, and if not, by how much they differ," Shoemaker added.

The center's staff also gets a fair number of requests to determine the physical properties of a new compound or polymer through tensile, impact, heat deflection and other tests.

"We are the only facility that we know of where a customer can design a compound, make it, mold test bars and test them all under one roof," Shoemaker said.

The center then can scale up and run larger amounts of material or pilot production volumes, McHouell added.

Full production runs aren't offered so the center doesn't become competition to customers.

The Polymers Center of Excellence in North Carolina has installed a 40-millimeter Leistritz machine to boost its work in compounding. It also has in-house injection molding machines along with education and parts testing capabilities.

The polymers center has an ISO 9001 lab with new equipment for physical, thermal, spectral and rheological testing from the likes of Netzsch, Goettfert, Instron, PerkinElmer and ThermoFisher Scientific "to get our customers the best results possible," said Yiro Shimabukuro, a materials chemist who runs the lab.

The lab's scope of work includes third-party mediation testing, new product development, failure analysis, engineering, quality assurance, quality control, rheological processing and more.

"While most of our testing follows ASTM or ISO protocol, we are equipped to tackle special projects by creating custom testing methods to best gain insight on any desired material properties," Shimabukuro said.

The lab also collaborates with Gaston College, University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) and North Carolina State University (NCSU) to provide processing, such as melt blown and spinning for fiber and filament creation.

The polymers center started off in 1972 as the UNCC Polymers Extension Program with a charge to address the lack of training and knowledge of plastics processing technology in the state.

The program expanded at UNCC in 1994 in collaboration with NCSU then it moved in 1999 to a research park and became the Polymers Center for Excellence.

In 2012, the Polymers Technology Center and small-scale production was added.

The excellence center also funds research projects and scholarships with its university partners. An endowment set up in honor of a center founder, Joe Bennett, is currently funded at $250,000. The center is working with UNCC officials about the criteria for the selection process.

"The idea is to fund the last two years of college for a deserving student who has expressed an interest in a career in polymers and plastics, or in related fields," Shoemaker said.

The polymers center currently offers classes on injection molding and extrusion but will slowly add topics, such as feeder technology, pelletization, the regulatory environment and sustainability.

The additional equipment and classes mean the center needs to grow physically so a 12,000-square-foot expansion is planned. When it's completed in about 18 months, the center will be 50,000 square feet.

"This will alleviate the calls for more office and extrusion space, but inevitably there will come a time when we will have to build an entirely new space, one that will house the injection molding and material science labs, along with what we hope will become an educational center for STEM programs," Shoemaker said.

The polymers center has been around almost 25 years but Bill Murphy, a technical associate, says "we are the best-kept secret in the plastics industry."

Murphy has 40 years of experience in the industry, including sales for Maag Group pumps, pelletizers and filtration equipment.

"Many may know we exist, but very few know what we do and what our mission is," Murphy said. "From my knowledge, I do not believe there is another organization in the U.S. that does what we do, which makes us even more unique to the industry."

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