- March 01, 2008, By Edward Boyle, Contributing Editor
In a twist on the old cliche, one long-time UK-based resin supplier decided that if you want something done at all, sometimes you just have to do it yourself. Victrex has been supplying PEEK resin, primarily used for plastic injection molding and stock shapes, for more than 20 years. During that time, only one user saw the potential in extruding traditional filmstock from PEEK for a broader range of high-performance applications.
But that company didn't have the market reach of Victrex's own worldwide sales and marketing network, explains Mike Percy, global technical leader, Victrex APTIV films. “We felt there was a greater opportunity for PEEK polymer-based film (in the broader marketplace) if it was actively sold out there,” says Percy. “We also felt that we knew the material better, by far, than anyone in the world,” since Victrex controls 95%-98% of the market.
Percy says Victrex, which became an independent company after a management buyout from ICI in 1993, has been integrating the PEEK polymer supply chain over the past seven years. First, the company developed its own monomer feed streams to guarantee continuous availability, then melt filtration and compounding capabilities. Victrex recently expanded its polymerization capability with the opening of a new £32 million Victrex PEEK polymer plant.
After extensive market research and numerous customer requests, the company decided in 2006 to develop a proprietary extrusion line and convert its PEEK resin into film. Victrex subsequently invested nearly $10 million to expand its UK facility and build a custom-designed, 1.5-m-wide extruder that produces the film, trademarked APTIV, in thicknesses from 6-750 microns.
The ER-WE-PA/Davis-Standard production line includes an extruder, roll stack, and winder and features a computerized control X-ray thickness measurement device automatically linked to the extrusion die. Off-line slitting/rewinding is accomplished on equipment from Atlas (Bobst Group) with a width of 1.6 m to match the production line.
Key to the success of the APTIV film product, says Percy, is an off-line, post-extrusion Enercon Plasma3 treating system installed on the slitter that delivers and maintains high dyne levels for long periods and helps provide the performance properties expected by the film's buyers. The Plasma3 process generates an ion discharge to the material's surface 100% more dense than flame treatment. Percy estimates that 30% of all PEEK-based films are plasma treated.
“As we were building the new facility, we wanted what we felt was the best technology,” he says. “So, we took the leap and said, ‘We're going to plasma treatment rather than corona treatment,’ and the rest is history.”
Percy notes that plasma treating, which allows the material to hold dyne levels for extended periods, was a virtual requirement for maintaining superior performance characteristics during shipment from its UK production facility to customers in Asia, the Americas, and beyond.
PEEK-based films previously had been corona treated, but the chemically resistant material made adhesion of its inks and coatings difficult, notes Percy. The intense level of treatment provided by plasma solved those problems and helped customers with downline processes.
“PEEK is a very chemically resistant material, and as such it's very difficult to get materials to key to it,” explains Percy. “We did look at the corona system as an option, and it was cheaper, but we're making a long-term investment, and we look to be on the technical leading edge. All of the people who have tried [the plasma system] said, ‘Wow, this is good.’
“People want to use PEEK-based film for a variety of reasons,” he adds. “High-temperature performance is one of them, but they may want to stick it to something; they may want to vacuum metallize it or to print on it; and to do those three processes, you need the right surface energy characteristics of the film. That was the reason we bought the plasma treater.”
Percy says Enercon's plasma treating system helps PEEK-based films succeed in part by maintaining the properties of the resin itself, including high heat resistance, excellent wear, low moisture absorption, broad chemical resistance, environmental friendliness, high strength and toughness, electrical stability with stable dielectric properties, radiation resistance, excellent barrier properties, and acoustic properties.
“APTIV film provides a unique combination of high-performance properties that you can't find in other materials,” says Percy. “If you want something just for high temperature, you can use metal. But if you want something that's high temperature and chemically resistant, with a degree of impact toughness and heat processibility, your options become limited. And that's where PEEK tends to fit in.”
Percy says APTIV film can be enhanced with different additives to give it different properties relative to each market, including aerospace, automotive and transportation, consumer, electronics, food and beverage, industrial, medical, military, oil and gas, chemical processing, and semi-conductor.
“We are at the apex of the high-performance pyramid,” explains Percy. “It's not something you choose because it sounds good; you choose it because you need its high-performance qualities: high temperature, chemical resistance, high purity — all of the characteristics that the high end of the industry requires.
“It's an expensive material in comparison to most commodity packaging,” adds Percy. “But we're finding the market trend is pushing technology higher, and consequently people need more higher-performance materials, so they tend to come to us when their own materials run out of gas.”
That has led to an entirely new customer base in the paper, film, and foil converting market that had no need for pellets. “Now we're providing the PEEK resin in a film format, and they're saying, ‘Oh, that's interesting. What can we do with that?’
“We've found that we're actually contacting a whole new universe of customers. People who bought our resins (for uses such as injection molding or stock shapes) never really used film and aren't likely to use film. Now more companies can benefit from the superior properties of PEEK in a film format.”
Contributing editor Edward Boyle, based in Reading, PA, has covered the converting industry for more than 23 years. Contact him at EJB Communications; 610-670-4680; email@example.com.
Film Protects Racing Yacht
Victrex APTIV film was selected to protect certain intensely stressed parts of “GER 89,” the United Internet Team Germany yacht. GER 89 is entered in the prestigious America's Cup sailing race.
The film was chosen for its extreme wear resistance. It is applied to the hull and parts under the deck to protect them from friction and pressures arising from high sailing speeds.
Victrex plc | Hillhouse Intl., Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire FY5 4QD UK | +44 1253 897700 | www.victrex.com