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Replacing metal with plastic: is it possible to reduce the environmental impact by using technopolymers?

Plastic is the main material used for the production of the most disparate consumer goods according to their technical and structural characteristics, which allow more resistant, lighter and more versatile solutions to be developed, but above all at lower costs.

However, even today, many processes involve the use of metal materials instead of plastic, justifying their use with the alleged greater resistance to weathering or physical stress, but is this really the case?

We know that, since their invention, plastics have contributed massively to innovating in other industrial sectors, immediately proving to be more malleable and versatile than most of the natural raw materials precisely because of the intrinsic characteristics of plastic.

Over time, thanks to the development of new catalysts and the synthesis of new technopolymers, the plastics industry has played an increasingly central role in the world production of objects, so much so that it is finally possible to talk about the “transition to plastic” or “metal replacement”, as metal is to all intents and purposes the ultimate material that is most difficult to replace with equivalent solutions.

Nonetheless, although still today part of the industry is not confident of the advantages deriving from “metal replacement”, we are facing an epochal turning point, brought forward by the numerous benefits closely linked to the use of high-performance polymers in place of heavier and more expensive materials, the use of which is slowly losing justification thanks to the excellent performance and cost savings associated with new plastics.

In fact, at this point making a metal part in plastic is no longer an issue linked exclusively to reducing the weight of the product, as the most modern engineered plastics are able to compete with metal on several fronts, effectively making the replacement of the material a real long-term investment.

But more specifically, what are the desirable features that make high-potential polymers such a good substitute?

  1. First and foremost, it is essential to underline the significant savings in both economic and resource terms deriving from the use of plastic. In fact, thanks to the injection moulding process, the use of the material is optimized and the industrial cycle times are speeded up, as the production of the parts does not require any secondary processing aimed at making the products identical, consequently reducing the production of rejects.
  2. Secondly, the malleable nature of the polymers makes it possible to intervene already during the injection moulding process, to carry out a series of more structured processes on the material, such as colouring, layering or polishing, thus eliminating all those secondary operations which complicate the production process. Doing this can also simplify the production and assembly process of complex pieces, consisting of multiple metal parts fused or fixed together by welding, creating a single element in injection moulded plastic and bypassing the need for welded joints between the parts, consequently preventing any leaking.
  3. The use of engineered plastics of the highest quality makes it possible to achieve very high levels of resistance to physical stress, almost comparable to those of many metal alloys. Furthermore, during the injection moulding process it is possible to prepare specific design solutions that increase the structural resistance without this particularly affecting the cost of the piece.
  4. The natural consequence of using plastic instead of metal is the reduction of the overall weight of the product, a sensitive factor both for the needs of the end user and for the reduction of shipping and assembly costs.
  5. Due to their engineered nature, individual parts made from high potential polymers can be designed to better resist weathering. Furthermore, thanks to the greater chemical resistance typical of the material, it is not affected by corrosive factors that can attack the metal, such as rust or oxidation.
  6. Lastly, the use of plastics allows the optimization of the production process by recovering and reusing rejected parts in a simpler and more immediate way than it would be possible to do with metal production waste, which can be re-melted but with longer timescales and more complex methods. The thermoplastic residues can be easily ground in their original form, or in pellets, and reintroduced into the industrial cycle without particular difficulties or additional costs.


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We have seen that plastics, and specifically technopolymers, give their best when the production chain is rethought according to plastic, innovating production processes and reconfiguring the approach during the design phase.

At the current replacement pace, it has been estimated that in the near future 25% of the weight of a car will be made up of plastic components, demonstrating the advantages associated with the more massive implementation of this material in production processes.

It is precisely in this direction that the plastics industry is moving, as demonstrated by the main topic of the Smart Plastic 2021 conference, focused on Technopolymers, in which Rifra was able to participate by bringing into play its own line of colour Masterbatches, Rifra Ultratech, able to guarantee maximum performance even at temperatures above 300°C.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the era of metal replacement has just begun thanks to the development of high-performance polymers.

Certainly not everything that is made of metal today can be replaced with synthetic polymeric materials; however, the advantages deriving from the implementation of plastic products instead of metal counterparts are evident both from the point of view of timing and costs, as well as from the point of view of environmental impact, helping our company to move towards a greener and more sustainable future.







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