I started working in the plastics industry more than 30 years ago focused on pipe and cable extrusion. I have seen a significant transformation during this time. In the beginning the goal was to produce high volumes at high speed, utilizing different grades of plastics coming from a variety of suppliers meeting standards established by ASTM, PPI, UL, Bellcore (now Telcordia), etc.
In the mid 90’s we had to develop fire retardant materials to use in conduit to be installed inside buildings or locations where protection against fire was crucial. It was also necessary to develop new materials for specific applications (e.g., to reduce the coefficient of friction for the installation of telecommunications cables inside plastic conduit, high abrasion resistance for transportation of sludge in mines, hydrocarbons resistance plastic for fuel conduction, etc.) Of course, all these products must be produced in different colors with additives like UV protectants.
The industry continues to evolve and it has been changing at fast pace during the new millennium. The development of fire retardant materials became very important due to different types of installations of fiber optic cables inside of high rise apartment buildings and condominium complexes Multi- Dwelling Units (MDUs). It became evident that we needed to eliminate toxic and corrosive materials from the formulations. Europe reacted quickly and pushed for the development of low smoke, non-corrosive materials with zero toxicity. Additionally, the elimination of heavy metals from the conduit formulations has been one of the most important directives worldwide.
Now we face new challenges, our world is screaming for help to curb environmental degradation in order to create a better world for generations to come. We have been working tirelessly to create new technologies that utilize recycled and reprocessed materials. We are working to increase the recovery of plastic waste from landfills and from the sea to reutilize them back in our processes or in the creation of new products. However, it’s challenging to meet established performance standards depending on the application.
Technology is advancing at a fast pace promoting the creation of new products. New technologies have been incorporated to align the development of plastic products to changes happening in our society. The telecommunications field is the one I have involved with the most. The miniaturization of fiber optic cables and the plastic conduit in which they are installed in has caused the equipment manufacturers to create new technologies to increase production speeds and accurate controls of raw material consumption. Today, state of the art extrusion equipment is controlled by powerful computer systems that control the extrusion process and gravimetric systems for raw material feeding. The most advanced manufacturing facilities look like high-tech laboratories with highly qualified technicians and engineers orchestrating manufacturing processes.
The new efforts in research and development are now focused on the development of clean, recyclable plastics that are safe for the environment. We are integrating smart sensors and Nano Technology into plastic conduit to make it locatable and capable of sending information after it’s been installed underground. Electronic devices and computers are utilized to gather data including location, changes in temperature, leak detection, vibration, transit, intrusion, etc. We are developing self-healing plastics and elastomers to fix cracks or eliminate adhesives. We are also integrating super materials like carbon fiber for special applications.
There remain innovations to come in the near future, but as I mentioned before our focus must be to develop environmentally friendly materials embedded with new technologies including Artificial Intelligence. There are thousands of miles of conduit and cables installed underground in our cities to interconnect every one of us. As a core part of the infrastructure that lies underneath these surfaces we have a responsibility to build a foundation that is safe, accessible, and intelligent today while protecting our environment tomorrow.