January 8, 2020
At K 2019, Farrel Pomini, a self-described niche player in the plastics compounder market, took a step toward the main stage as it focused on promoting its systems and applications capability rather than a host of new products.
"We're focusing on our applications expertise this year because we want visitors to see the breadth of our experience," said Paul Lloyd, business unit director at the Ansonia, Conn.-based company, during the event in Düsseldorf, Germany.
"Here, on the stand, you can see our exhibits with regard to our expertise in project engineering, line controls and application capabilities, and we're augmenting our core product, the continuous mixer with new project engineering services."
To that end, the company has done a great deal of R&D in order to leverage the benefits of that product — "a high fill rate, a capability to process materials at lower temperature, a capability to deliver a good return on investment based on lower energy input" — into new applications.
These not only include new markets, such as flooring, but also new materials, such as flame retardants.
"What we are really pushing is to link those benefits into the biopolymer and recycling industry," Lloyd said.
The niches the company has traditionally operated in were previously confined to highly filled materials, very temperature-sensitive materials and PVC. The expertise gained in these specialist areas is now proving to be valuable in tackling the challenges that customers face in processing biopolymers and recycled materials.
The focus of the biopolymer work currently is on polylactic acid, as the company has set up a development program with NatureWorks. In the future, other biopolymers will also be studied.
"Our approach when starting something new is to always do so with an industrial partner. Right now that partner for biopolymers is NatureWorks," Lloyd said.
While customers have requested the company to run other biopolymers, working with a customer rather than with a commercial party usually also includes maintaining confidentiality.
"With an industrial partner — a resin producer — we can share the results. That's why our first step is always to find a credible partner in that area," Lloyd said.
Leveraging the capability of its continuous mixing technology, a significantly lower molecular weight degradation in the PLA materials was achieved, Lloyd said, something that NatureWorks has documented.
"This is especially important when people are moving into next-generation compounds with PLA, looking to fill the material with, for example, talc," he said.
The other important area of focus is recycling, where the product offers two big benefits.
"First, based on the free volume of the chamber and surface area of the rotors the machine is very able to get recycled product into the machine." In other words, if the flake sizes are larger or less regular, the machine can nonetheless handle these "very well."
The second benefit is again related to the temperature.
"Because of the capability to operate at a lower temperature, we see less damage to the polymer and a less aggressive second heat history on the polymer," Lloyd explained.
The company's partner in the recycling area is the University of Massachusetts Lowell, to whom it also donated a lab-sized machine for students to work with.
Another area of expertise developed by the company is in the area of digitalization. While Farrel Pomini have been developing traditional 4.0 capabilities for some time, the company is now working on newer technologies using augmented reality.
"With augmented reality, we are moving at the pace of technology or we may even be ahead," Lloyd said. "But we are running up against hardware challenges: Among other things, the headsets are not comfortable. No solution is particularly perfect at this time."
However, the company is finding it challenging to make it commercially viable. According to Lloyd, the plan is to start with some basic applications, even though the technology to go further in that area is available.
"Things like using an iPad to find a component instead of having to read a manual or go to a website," he explained.
All in all, he concluded, it's a challenging time to be in the plastics area; but at the same time, it offers opportunities.
"Consumers may be outraged, but they realize that something needs to happen. Now is a good time to drive changes through," Lloyd said. "We can demonstrate that we are more than just a machinery manufacturer and take this chance to position ourselves as a solution provider, which we are."
'We can demonstrate that we are more than just a machinery manufacturer and take this chance to position ourselves as a solution provider, which we are.'