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Taiwan tackles innovation for a small but strong plastics industry

Taichung, Taiwan — You get the feeling that Thomas Edison — he of 1,093 patents and witticisms linking genius and perspiration — would like Taiwan's Plastics Industry Development Center.

"We make new materials practical," said PIDC Vice President Zen-Wen Chiou, in an interview at the center's modest offices, set in a warren of narrow lanes in an attractively landscaped industrial park in the city of Taichung.

Taiwan's processors, facing higher labor costs, try to focus on high-end products, leaving commodity manufacturing to mainland China and Southeast Asia.

Still, most of those companies are small, without deep research pockets. Enter the PIDC.

Founded a quarter-century ago, the center is charged with finding bottom-line solutions for the island's hustling but fragmented processing industry.

Chiou enthusiastically showed off some of the center's current projects, including an adhesive activated by exposure to ultraviolet light.

At the end of the product life cycle, "you use another wavelength of UV light, and it detaches automatically. The glue becomes nonsticky within three to eight minutes," Chiou said. "Basically we use UV light as a switch. So [we] can change the viscosity."

Chiou was especially upbeat about a thin (less than 0.1 millimeters) carbon-composite fiber. When carefully layered at cross-angles, the resulting item is strong but light.

"It's ready to commercialize. Many companies have contacted us to enquire about this technology," Chiou said.

Collaboration is key on this island of about 23 million — a population smaller than that of Texas. Among PIDC's many collaborators is Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute. Like PIDC, ITRI, in the city of Hsinchu, is a public-private partnership.

"They develop new materials. After that, they stop. We make the new materials practical," Chiou said.

Public and private resources each contribute about half of the PIDC's annual $13 million budget.

Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things are getting lots of well-deserved buzz these days, but Chiou said all the digerati in the corner offices need to pay close attention to resin properties such elasticity and flow.

Chiou noted the efforts of frequent center collaborator Fu Chun Shin Machinery Manufacture Co. Ltd., one of Taiwan's biggest makers of injection molding machines.

"They embed sensors in the mold, to detect viscosity, temperature, volume and pressure," he said, and "all this goes into the cloud."

Fu Chun Shin's efforts won it an award for innovation in August at the biennial Taipei Plas trade show.

PIDC has scheduled a Dec. 11 grand opening for its $10 million medical polymer research laboratory, located a half-block away.

Private industry will be able to access the center's pricey equipment, including a liquid silicone rubber injection molding machine donated by Engel Austria GmbH, Chiou said.

The new lab will concentrate on disposables such as tubing for noninvasive surgery. To that end, the center works closely with universities, corporations and local hospitals. It will also test products in an ISO-certified lab.

In keeping with Taiwan's green ethos — the country has some of the world's toughest recycling laws — Chiou showed off PIDC-innovated products made from ocean waste.

"We collect waste nylon fishnet from the ocean and then we reformulate and make glasses [frames] or other items, like backpacks," he said.

Asked when he thought the center will win the Nobel Prize, Chiou laughed: "Oh, no. We're about making money, not winning the Nobel."

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» Publication Date: 02/10/2018

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This project has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° [605658].

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