Exclusive article for BRITISH PLASTICS & RUBBER
CUSTOM BLENDS OFFER UNIVERSAL SOLUTION
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Custom masterbatch formulations produced and delivered in less time than
it takes to source a standard off-the-shelf product could signal the end
of stock colours and the compounding of certain polymers, argues Tony
Gaukroger, Managing Director of ColourTone Masterbatch Limited.Many factors
have contributed to this fundamental change in market position. Driven
by pressure to reduce stock holding of materials, the advent of JIT (Just
in Time) and demands to get products into the retail chain as fast as
is humanly possible, processors are seeking greater levels of service.
Fortunately the latest polymers, additives, equipment and processing technology
have provided the tools to meet these needs by enabling the formulation
and manufacture of bespoke masterbatches that can be introduced to an
increasing range of base polymers at dosages unheard of 20 years ago.
Even the difficulties of colouring polymers with a strong base colour,
e.g. ABS and filled materials, can now be overcome as developments in
polymer technology have created materials that can accept higher loadings
of additives and advancements in processing machinery allow them to be
made and converted into products. Processors no longer have to purchase
a stock universal masterbatch that yields a different colour in every
Too many colours
How often have processors been offered a choice of 250 colours and still
not found the one they want? And why so many colours?
To understand why so many stock colours are offered you have to look at
the market back in the 1970s and 1980s. At this time there was less focus
on colour and therefore not so much demand for bespoke shades. Hence,
manufacturers enjoyed the freedom to produce a selection of colours in
universal carriers for use across a wide range of polymers. They would
run yellow first, then orange, red and brown colours etc. to opitimise
efficiency by minimising cleaning downtimes. Lead times for custom colours
were, as a result, determined by their position in this manufacturing
Often production was geared to meet output targets set by accountants
preoccupied with performance based on capacity and plant utilisation rather
than earnings per machine and overall profitability. Market conditions
allowed this situation to prevail and as pressure on delivery increased,
in tandem with demands for fresh, new, colours, manufacturers responded
by producing more stock colours.
Long term this strategy is doomed to failure. Just how many colours should
be produced to meet customer requirements for a particular shade? What
is the cost of stocking a minimum quantity of 25kgs of each of 250 shades,
i.e. 6.5 tonnes of premium priced material? The whole idea simply does
not make economic sense.
Perhaps this is why some markets avoid the issue altogether and tell customers
what they can have. For example the motor industry generally offers a
fastidiously researched, but severely limited, choice of colours when
it introduces a new model. But then when it comes to colour matching within
the vehicle itself, plastics producers and processors find themselves
up against some of the most stringent standards for colour control and
Colour and marketing success go hand in hand. Colour adds value. These
days colour consultants work with designers to create unique combinations
of colour and shading that will appeal to customers. A decade ago you
chose from a colour card. Now, virtually any colour can be matched and
achieved in plastic, paint or fabric. Products are now marketed with built-in
obsolescence that is directly influenced by colour.
As masterbatch production efficiency has improved, mainly through developments
in machinery and electronic process control, as well as polymer and additive
technology, it has become easier to incorporate more pigment into base
polymers and so produce stronger (more highly concentrated) masterbatches.
Modern compounding extruders distribute and develop additives more efficiently
than earlier models. They also enable faster cleaning and so reduce downtime
during colour and material changes.
Conversion plant - injection moulding, extrusion machines etc - is now
designed to process these sophisticated materials and to run masterbatches
down to 1 per cent dosage or less.
Then there is the advancement in logistics. Virtually any polymer or pigment
can now be sourced within hours and deliveries can be geared to match.
Overnight, next day deliveries are now the norm across the UK as well
Taking these factors into account it is now possible to produce masterbatches
in a wider range of polymers and for more users to benefit from them.
ColourTone has successfully produced polymer specific and engineering
polymer masterbatches in many materials including ABS, PA, PC, PE, PET/PBT,
PMMA, POM (acetal), PS, PVC and TPR.
Two notable developments include a polymer-specific colour masterbatch
for rigid PVC that makes it as easy to colour PVC as any other plastic
material. Thought to be a world first, this material (patent applied for)
has the potential to turn the PVC processing market inside out by allowing
processors to cash-in on the benefits of lower polymer costs, reduced
stock holding and the production flexibility offered through using masterbatch.
An acetal masterbatch for use in copolymer and homopolymer injection moulding
grades, produced to meet demands from trade moulders, serves as another
example of what can be achieved. Colour matched to customers' requirements
this polymer specific acetal product can be made as special blends that
include additives such as molybdenum disulphide. Dosage rates fall within
1-5 % depending on colour, properties, and intended application.
However, continuing high demand for certain colours proves that the market
for universal stock colours remains active for the time being. The question
is, how long can it compete against colour matched material, in a base
polymer of choice, delivered in the same time-frame?
Colour Tone Masterbatch Limited
Pant Glas Farm Industrial Estate
CF83 8BJ UK
Telephone: +44 (0) 2920 888910
Fax: +44 (0) 2920 868487
Telephone: 01428 723211
Fax: 01428 722371