Understanding TPEs

Plastics are synthetic chemical materials called polymers that approach a liquid state when processed and then solidify to form a “part” when cooled. They are made up of long-chain repeating molecules, and as more repeating molecule units are added they become “heavier”, and thus, “stronger”.

Sometimes plastic materials are made up of more than one repeatable molecule type; these materials are called “copolymers” and can be formulated to make the properties of a plastic better than if only one repeatable molecule type is used.

Thermoplastic elastomers, or TPEs, are copolymer plastic materials that have hard – or thermoplastic – molecule segments that allow them to exhibit good physical properties AND soft – or rubbery – molecule segments that allow them to exhibit elastomeric behavior. Together, these repeating molecule types have allowed TPEs to become a versatile, and highly used, material resource.

TPE Family Comparison Chart with Hardness

TPE-Family-Comparison-with-Hardnes

Benefits of TPEs

Thermoplastic elastomers, also known as TPEs, are a family of low modulus and low hardness “rubber-like” materials that are processed by thermoplastic means and can be reprocessed over and over again. They are similar to thermoset rubber in that they can to resume their original shape when stretched or deformed. They can be processed by a number of methods including injection molding, extrusion, blow-molding, thermoforming as well as other methods.

The reason for the consistent expansion of TPE market share over thermoset rubber is their versatility in terms of processing, property matrix, colorability, durometer range, chemical resistance, clarity, functionality, as well as their ability to deliver benefits to customers at a low cost compared to thermoset rubber.

TPEs can be grouped into two key segments; “engineered” and “specialty”.

Engineered TPEs typically have higher durometers and are able to withstand highly “dynamic” application segments albeit at a higher cost per pound. Specialty TPEs are lower cost but are able to achieve a much wider durometer range, especially low hardnesses. They function better in relatively “static” application environments.

Of all TPEs (specialty and engineered), Styrenic block copolymers (SBCs) are the most versatile TPE group, and the largest, in terms of use. They offer excellent design flexibility, including varying degrees of clarity (including crystal clarity) and elasticity, colorability, processability, excellent UV resistance, low specific gravity, excellent low temperature properties, bondability to different substrates, as well as a good physical property matrix…all at great value in terms of price compared to alternative TPE product groups and thermoset rubber.

A key application segment where TPEs, and specifically SBCs, have virtually changed our lives is “ergonomic enhancement” or, as many refer to it, “soft touch”. Ergonomic enhancement with TPEs allows you to experience a much greater degree of control with devices and machines.  And, you can operate these devices and machines for longer periods of time while reducing your risks of musculoskeletal disorders.

SBC TPEs are also an excellent alternative to PVC materials in many application segments. They have no phthalates and, because they are a “true elastomer” material, they have design flexibility advantages over PVC materials.

Application segments for TPEs are virtually endless and include healthcare/medical, transportation, toys, sports & leisure, appliances, electrical & electronics, packaging and many, many more

Demand on TPEs by Market

The global demand for TPEs is set to increase by approximately 6% per year to a projected 6 million metric tons in 2017. Manufacturers’ continued product innovation is set to drive the rise of TPE use. This growth will certainly be aided by the improved economic conditions in North America and Western Europe, compared to the recession of 2007 to 2012. The Asia and Pacific regions will continue to have strong demand. Other markets such as Africa and the Middle East will also show increased demand in 2017. All markets will continue to grow as  TPEs continue to replace other materials, such as PVC and other plastics, silicone, natural rubber, and even metals and wood.

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