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Talking Points: Lighting manufacturers see opportunity with LSR

Issue: June 2017

The liquid silicone rubber (LSR) molding machinery business is booming, driven by new optical products, growing demand in medical products and reshoring.

More than 160 people attended LSR 2017 in Anaheim, Calif., last month, about double the number conference organizer Executive Conference Management expected.
“Having more than 160 people at the first LSR conference shows a big interest in silicone,” said Steve Broadbent, project engineer for elastomers at Engel Machinery Inc. in York, Pa. “A lot of thermoplastic molders want to add this to what they have to sell.”

The story of LSR optical lenses is an interesting one. LSR has been used for lenses for more than 20 years, but the available materials at the time were not injection-grade, so lenses were manufactured mostly via casting. But injection grades have become available in the last few years.

That means commercial outdoor lights, previously made from aluminum fixtures, polycarbonate (PC) lenses and elastomer seals, can now be made entirely with LSR.

Ron Shinn, editor

This eliminates the risk of a seal leaking.

“We are seeing a lot of optics companies trying to learn LSR molding now,” Broadbent said.

A representative of Musco Sports Lighting LLC in Oskaloosa, Iowa, agreed. He said his company is converting one of its injection molding machines for LSR molding and will start doing some of its own prototyping.

Broadbent said that the market for LSR medical and consumer products is growing. Automotive growth is modest and he described it as a mature market.

Reshoring also plays a part in the strong machinery market. Broadbent described one Engel customer that has gone from no LSR molding machines to 12 machines in the past five years because its customer wanted manufacturing of a baby bottle nipple to be brought back from China.

LSR molding is not new for machinery makers; however, the engineering representative of another major injection molding machinery manufacturer said it has had LSR machines for 20 years but not many people know about them.

“Salespeople don’t understand the process the way they understand thermoplastic molding, so they don’t like to sell it,” said the representative, who did not want to be identified. “We are trying to change that because there is new opportunity, and we are improving the technology.”

SPINNING A BETTER RECYCLINE MODEL

The business model of the plastics recycling industry in this country is not efficient!

What sort of business model has one company collecting post-consumer waste, another sorting it, another washing and turning it into flake, and another company finally using it to make a commercial product? That’s too much handling and transportation and too many companies needing to make a profit.

So it is a genuine feel-good moment when I run across a company that understands the value of streamlining the supply chain.

Recently, I visited textile manufacturer Unifi’s Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, N.C., for a story in last month’s issue.

Unifi, based in Greensboro, N.C., suffered from the brutal overseas competition that decimated the U.S. textile industry. The company downsized, hunkered down and hung on.

Ten years ago, it saw value in reusing its own scrap, so it sent the scrap to outside vendors to be processed. As Unifi’s need for recycled material grew, it started buying post-consumer material, sending it to more outside vendors and eventually getting the material back to spin high-quality synthetic yarn.

Jump ahead five years, and business was good. Unifi recognized the value of closing the loop on its supply chain, and invested in its own processing equipment. Jump ahead another five years to 2017, and Unifi has launched its own bottle-washing operation.

The company has invested $53 million in its recycling operation and now has control over the quality and quantity of its recycled material. Some of that material is being sold to outside customers to make high-value products.

Unifi has created a more efficient business model by eliminating most of the outside companies it once had to depend on for the high-quality recycled material it needs.

The Unifi experience also shows that this could be good for the recycling machinery business. Unifi selected American Starlinger-Sahm in Fountain Inn, S.C., as its machinery supplier, then worked with that company to develop capabilities that really did not exist at the time. You could say that a yarn manufacturer has pushed a machinery manufacturer in a way that benefits the entire recycling industry.

Ron Shinn, editor

rshinn@plasticsmachinerymagazine.com