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Get connected with TPEs


The Filip 2 is a wearable phone and locator for kids to stay connected with their family. The device is made using PolyOne's GLS TPE material.

Thermoplastic elastomers can help designers match aesthetics and functionality in the Internet of Things, according to PolyOne, writes David Eldridge in this feature for Plastics News Europe.

Thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) can offer many design enhancements to make a product stand out in the rapidly growing market for internet-connected devices. TPEs have already become valued materials for designers and manufacturers of consumer products in recent years, but the onset of the connectivity megatrend adds new possibilities, said John Voyce, European business development manager for PolyOne GLS Thermoplastic Elastomers.

“What does connectivity do to a product? It moves it from a commoditised space to a more specialised space. It also allows you to differentiate from your competitors. It can make you more specialised, it can make you the market leader. Therefore you can command a greater price, a greater premium for your product,” said Voyce at PD+I 2016, the product design and innovation conference organised by Plastics News Europe in London in May.

Before the trend for connected products started, designers turned to TPEs for a number of advantages, including ergonomics and the wide range of colour choices. Power tools and infant feeding bowls are two classic markets for TPEs, where the materials help combine functionality with aesthetics.

Voyce said TPEs were first used in professional power tools to provide protection and give them grip. A tradesman was willing to pay extra for that protection as it made the power tool robust enough for the knocks and drops of day-to-day use.

When TPEs moved into consumer power tools the materials were used as a means to differentiate the manufacturer’s product, he said. Consumers associated the soft touch grip with the professional brands, so this helped designers convey the idea of value.

In infant food bowls and cutlery, TPEs also improved functionality through the soft touch and grippiness of the overmoulded material.

“It was also aesthetically pleasing,” said Voyce. “It looked good because of the bright colours. Having the two feels – the hard plastic and the soft plastic – stimulated the child. And now these are everyday products.”

Products are increasingly being launched which retain established functionality, but add features through connectivity, often via a smartphone app.

Voyce showed examples of connected smart devices, including an icon of the Internet of Things, the Nest smart thermostat. Objects like thermostats, which are traditionally a simple box on the wall, now have to look good in the home, he said.

He also showed images of connected smoke detectors, thermometers and a garage door opener which alerts you remotely via an app if the door has been opened.

Voyce contrasted an old-style pedometer’s hard plastic case with a wearable fitness tracker’s soft TPE.

“We’ve moved on a long way from the pedometer,” he said. Fitness trackers have a lot more functions and are worn all day, so TPEs help them be more comfortable and also blend in better with everyday activities.

Emergency response pendants for seniors are another example where connected functionality is increasingly being matched with better aesthetic appeal. The pendant image shown by Voyce looked similar to jewellery.

“When we get old, we don’t want to be reminded we’re old,” he said.

Voyce suggested ways to differentiate with TPE materials in connected products. Material contrast involves using different textures and colours in the same product: he showed red and blue audio speakers next to each other, which have soft TPE buttons contrasting with a hard metal enclosure.

The surface finish can also be varied from gloss to matte. As well as touch, other sensory characteristics can be evoked. Visual characteristics possible in TPE’s include effects like pearlescent, metallic and sparkle, and degrees of opacity from clear to solid.

Voyce said product designers now have the option of differentiating through fragrance, by way of additives in the TPE.

“If you imagine you are in a store, you could have packaging that gives out fragrance,” he said. “It makes you want to enquire where the fragrance is. You look to locate it and the first thing you do is bring it to your nose. Once consumers have picked up the product, they are more likely to stick it in their basket and take it to the check-out.”