Appreciating the finer points of Color, Material & Finish

This article was originally published by Robert Grace on China Plastic & Rubber Journal.

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Color management and plastic product decoration is serious business. That is one reason why Springfield CMF Technology Co. Ltd. and Covestro are making serious efforts in color technology innovation and development.

At the CHINAPLAS 2018 held in Shanghai in late April, the organizer Adsale Exhibitions Ltd. devoted significant attention to the topic of color, material and finish (CMF) with the CMF Design Forum on one of the show floors. The presentations attracted a standing-room only crowd.

The organizer also devoted space in another show hall to the CMF Inspiration Walls to display a wide variety of CMF-related plastic resources. Those large displays featured primarily products and samples from Covestro and Hong Kong-based technology integration company Springfield CMF Technology Co. Ltd.(源辉表⾯装饰科技 有限公司)

In an interview at the fairgrounds, Springfield CMF Chief Executive Officer Alfred Au described how his firm has worked with plastic film and machinery partners to develop the Differential pressure Overlay Decoration (DOD), to apply diverse surface treatments to a wide range of substrates.

DOD, Au explained, is a new, post-production process that decorates parts by laminating a layer of printed/embossed film. It operates by proper control of vacuum, differential pressure and temperature to stretch and transfer functional or decorative materials via a film that is spread evenly and conforms to the shape of various substrates.

Springfield CMF buys its film from suppliers such as AkzoNobel, and applies the hot-melt glue. Au’s firm also has developed the vacuum application process at its plant in Shenzhen, China. “We control the vacuum, differential pressure and temperature to stretch and transfer functional or decorative materials via film to the molded part,” he said.

Welltec, part of Hong Kong-based Cosmos Machinery Enterprises Ltd., worked with Springfield CMF to jointly develop this proprietary, patented DOD process that can be used to produce parts with various surface colors, textures and effects – including glossy, stone-like, leather-like, wood grain, soft-touch and backlit metallization. Au said these can be applied to different substrates, including carbon fiber, in the same color at the same time.

In the process, a vacuum chamber descends over the fixture holding the part to be decorated. Currently, the largest film size available – limited by the size of the chamber – is 500 x 700mm (19.7 x 27.5 inches), Au said.

CMF is serious business to Covestro as well. Dr. Christopher Stillings is the newly named, Shanghai-based head of the Polycarbonates Business Unit’s several color and design centers worldwide. In a post-show interview, he explained: “At Covestro, we say ‘Black is not just black’. There are ‘n’ numbers of possibilities with black – it can be Jet Black giving a brilliant aesthetic look, or having an attractive surface pattern, or including functional aspects related to certain parts of the light spectrum.”

And the same actually also applies to white, he noted. “We have a huge library of different shades in whites developed for different industries and different applications – high reflective whites that allow light reflection without use of metals, and white translucent/diffuser colors used for efficient/high-output applications, such as in LED light management.”

“If this is what we can do with white and black, imagine the possibilities across the spectrum of colors,” he said, citing huge opportunities in sectors such as mobility, electrical and electronics, and healthcare. “We want to further continue to increase these activities in color trend research and color technology development and engage much more with the creative industry, as we believe that in the context of CMF, we can bring a lot to the table.”

This is especially true, Stillings noted, given that Covestro Color & Design Centers dot the globe – from Newark, Ohio, to Filago, Italy, to Greater Noida, India, to Shanghai and Guangzhou, China, to Map Ta Phut, Thailand, to Seoul, South Korea.

And there’s little doubt they will keep busy, given the challenges involved with creating consistent colors and effects for diverse materials.

“Along with regular color over the whole visible light spectrum in different forms such as opaque, translucent, transparent,” Stillings said, “we also develop color where aesthetics and functionality are equally important.” For example, he noted, there are:

  • Edge-glow colors (where edges glow when normal light falls on the plastic surface);
  • Glow-in-the-dark colors (where plastic absorbs light from the surroundings and glows when it is placed in the dark);
  • Laser marking color (which allows permanent mark/pattern/design/barcodes/QR coding on products made from polycarbonate).

Additionally, the firm offers light-management colors (such as diffusers), heat-management IR-absorbing colors, metallic colors, colors which appear opaque but are transparent to infrared (IR) rays.

It takes expertise in chemistry and material formulation, combined with knowledge of additives and colorants or dyes, as well as processing technology, to be able to create the right results for specific applications.

Two other important factors – the desired product surface, and details of the end application – need to be closely considered when designing any color, according to Stillings. The former will define a color’s aesthetic appearance, and the latter will dictate functional requirements as regards such factors as ultraviolet light resistance, weatherability, levels of transparency and opacity, structural stability, UL flame requirements, food and medical compliance, and the like.

Many technical challenges remain in this space, not least of which involve how to fine-tune color and aesthetics when working with composites and recycled materials.

As for promising end markets, Stillings said: “Two continually evolving industries – electronics and mobility – especially excite us, since they impact so many aspects of our daily lives. But healthcare also is interesting because color and the functionality that comes with it can contribute significantly to safety and well-being in this field.”

End consumers have direct visual and physical contact with many of the applications in these sectors. This offers great opportunities for solutions as a whole in color, material and finishes.

“A functional, versatile and innovative material such as polycarbonate can contribute a lot in this area via color, aesthetics, haptics and engineered properties. This excites us because it is challenging but also fun for us to push boundaries,” he noted.

Robert Grace is a freelance journalist based in Florida. He was the founding editor of Plastics News in 1989 and headed that weekly newspaper’s editorial operations.

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