By Frank Esposito, Plastics News
Brecksville, Ohio - Salesmen working on the Estane-brand thermoplastic polyurethane account in the 1960s had to be willing to work with models wearing mini-skirts and go-go boots. Recruiting a sales team probably wasn't much of a problem.
By that point, Estane already had been around for a few years. The material will celebrate its 50th anniversary 27 Jan, marking the occasion when researchers at BFGoodrich Co. filed a patent on the material. Today, the business is part of Lubrizol Advanced Materials, which is a unit of Wickliffe, Ohio-based Lubrizol Corp.
Scientist Larry Hewitt spent most of his career with the Estane product, working 29 years with Goodrich and AEA Investors before retiring in 2003.
"BFGoodrich was a tyre producer in the 1950s and had an interest in thermoplastic polyurethane as a potential replacement for rubber," Hewitt said in a recent interview at Estane's business office in Brecksville. "It was all about how to remove labour. One possibility at that time was an injection moulded tire. It had potential, but Goodrich soon realized it wouldn't work."
Estane's first commercial application was in industrial fabric coatings. It then moved into apparel, where the go-go market was calling. The popularity of the "wet look" brought Estane big sales in mini-skirts and go-go boots from the mid 1960s on into the early 1970s.
"It was a big market at the time," Hewitt recalled. "Some of the women in the office even wore items made from Estane. It was good advertising."
Once the fashion world moved on, Goodrich researchers worked on making Estane ready for the injection moulding market. Soon, the material was being used in small bumper panels and flexible parts, where it could function as a shock absorber. Most of those early injection moulded TPU parts weighed 5 lb or less and were valued for their good low temperature impact.
"In auto parts, Estane wouldn't crack or become brittle," Hewitt said. "It had flexibility and impact absorption. It could walk away from impact."
Driven by government regulations for cars and safety requirements, automotive became a very large market for Estane - almost too large, Hewitt said, since it generated half of the material's business.
With automotive established, Estane was able to diversify into magnetic media, where it was used as a binder resin to hold magnetic material onto polyester tape used in audio and video cassettes and computer storage tapes.
"Basically, the material made a good glue," Hewitt said. "We were able to capitalise on it in the 1970s, particularly in Europe."
In fabric coating, Estane found a home in conveyor belting used in food processing and other areas. In these applications, the material was valued for its consistent flexibility and abrasion resistance.
Other markets entered by Estane include medical, where it first was used in vascular tubes and then in wound care dressings, and footwear, where it was incorporated into decorative moulded parts on athletic and sport shoes.
The wire and cable field also gave Estane a home in appliances and electronics, particularly motion equipment on robotics.
"It won't rip if it's dragged, and trucks can drive over it," Hewitt said.
From the outset, Estane production has been centred in Avon Lake, Ohio. European production was added at a site in Oevel, Belgium, in the 1970s. In 2003, Estane gained production in Wilmington, Massachusetts, via the acquisition of speciality TPU maker Thermedics Polymer Products.
"The interesting thing about Estane's evolution is that a new market seems to come along just as an older one goes away."
So after half a century, what's left for Estane to do? Plenty, according Mike Vaughn, vice president and general manager.
Recent breakthroughs in aliphatic TPUs have moved Estane further into the medical market, particularly in intravenous tubing. Early 2009 will see the introduction of new Estane grades that can absorb and retain several hundred times their weight in water. These can be used in apparel that can wick water away from the body.
"I don't think the technology is tapped out," Vaughn said recently in Brecksville. "It's been around for 50 years, but still hasn't been all that it can be."
In late 2007, Estane grades were launched for blending with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) for abrasion resistance. The blends can be made directly at the extruder by processors making vacuum cleaner hose and similar products. The method allows processors to determine what percentage of each material they need, Vaughn said.
Late 2008 has also seen the commercial debut of flame-retardant, non-halogen Estane grades for wire and cable, especially for use in data communication cables. When exposed to flame, wires made from the new TPUs char, but don't drip, according to Vaughn. Breathable grades that transmit moisture vapour also were sold for the first time in late 2008. The new grades can be used in multiple layers and can trap odour.
Grades are being developed that can be used in hoses and fuel containment systems for E-85 ethanol-based fuel. Vaughn said these grades are needed for military applications, since the US military is requiring that more ethanol be used as fuel in tanks, troop carriers and other vehicles.
Vaughn added that Estane might fare better than other materials in an economic slowdown because of the nature of its customers.
"Our customers are more aggressive," he said. "They don't need four or five years to study a new material. And if their business is slow for a little while, they'll have time to try new things. If a production line is roaring, they can't stop and do a commercial trial."
But, ultimately, Estane's next 50 years will be dependent on those responsible for new innovation.
"If we don't find a home for new products, we lose the right to all our development," Vaughn said. "A lot of good technology has got us to where we are."