Moore's Law: The amount of data microchip can hold doubles every year or at least every 18 months.
Rock's Law: The cost of capital equipment to build semiconductors will double every four years.
Machrone's Law: The computer you want always costs $5,000.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates got himself in trouble by once commenting that if cars were like computer chips they'd be hundreds of times more powerful than they used to be and yet would cost only a fraction as much. This launched an avalanche of humorous retorts that still are circulating. The first response was "Yeah, and cars also would only be an inch long."
All this banter comes to mind when plastics producers start talking about chasing automotive electrical and electronics applications: a hot but somewhat deceiving market.
On the surface, jumping into EE applications looks like a sure bet. According to the latest University of Michiganforecast, vehicle electronics content is growing 10% annually. And even though the price of most electrical and electronic devices continues to drop, their percentage of total vehicle cost still is predicted to rise steadily from about 20% now to 24% by 2007.
That should translate into lots more plastic electrical connectors, parts and protective coverings for a growing array of wires, sensors, solenoids and electric motors. According to some industry estimates, new vehicles have an average of 13 electric motors, and shipments of such motors to the auto industry are growing about 7.5% annually.
Individually the parts are small, but add up all those itty bitty connectors, all those little gear housings and gears used to make electric seats go back and forth, plus all sorts of plastic coverings and boxes used to protect wires and myriad electrical and electronic devices - and pretty soon it looks like you've got enough plastic to make a bumper. And bumpers are indeed very, very big business.
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but producers such as DuPont Automotive do see EE as a good market for nylon and polyester products. Furthermore, these basic polymers are being tweaked into specialized types designed specifically to meet the demands of these growing applications.
One type of nylon now being offered allows for lower injection speed and pressures; that prevents delicate wiring and electronics from being damaged when they are encapsulated in a molded plastic part.
Another way plastics are being changed for EE applications is properties of nylon and polyester grades aimed at EE applications are being "married." In other words, new nylon grades are being given some of the positive physical properties more closely associated with polyester and vice versa.
The downside of all this marvelous manipulation of physical properties is that it's aimed at producing parts that are ever smaller, thinner and more intricate than their predecessors. Chemists and engineers are working their hearts out devising new ways to use less of their product.
Just as Bill Machrone's law and Arthur Rock's law dampen the overflowing enthusiasm of Moore's law, constant component downsizing is limiting what would otherwise be spectacular growth for EE plastics.
DuPont marketers downplay this issue, insisting the growing number of components more than compensates for the downsizing.
But Jim Best, president of Market Search, Inc., a company that studies and forecasts automotive plastics use, says that's only partially true. "The EE guys are constantly figuring out how to make stuff little," he says. While there may be twice as many applications, replacement parts often are less than half the size of their predecessors, he says. "If it weren't for the downsizing, it would really be a growth industry." Instead, Mr. Best says growth is "nice," rather than "fantastic."
"Another arrow in the quiver" is how Dow Plastics' tentative agreement with Solutia Inc. to compound and market nylon is being described.
Analysts say it's highly unlikely the move will force a major shakeup in the nylon 66 or underhood parts markets, but it gives Dow another major product in its automotive plastics portfolio and provides much-needed automotive engineering and marketing expertise to Solutia, a recently renamed unit of Monsanto Corp.
Under terms of the tentative agreement, Solutia will continue to develop and manufacture "neat" nylon at its facilities, while Dow will be responsible for compounding activities and assume commercial and marketing responsibilities for products.