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The increase in turnover of plastics converters producing for the E&E industries is estimated to be 5-8 % per annum... even 10-16 % in telecommunications

During the 1990s, the electrical and electronics (E&E) industries developed to become one of the most important customers of the plastics processing industry. Although their share of the total demand for plastics stood at only around 9 % in 1998 in volume terms, the value of production was very much higher, and the growth in demand both in volume and value has been faster than in other industries. In 1993-98 the increase in the total production volume in the electric and electronicindustries in Europe was about 5 % a year and, within this sector, the increase in electronics production was markedly higher than in the electrical industry. During the same period the increase in production of European industry in general was averaging only about 3 % a year.

The use of plastics in the electrical industry spreads to every sector. In the consumer electrical sector, we can see every day the switches, lighting fittings, wiring and equipment boxes in houses and workplaces.

Not so visible is the massive use of plastics "behind the scenes" in electrical engineering, stretching from the main switch right back through cabling and sub-stations, to the power generating plant. Without plastics, electricity would still be possible - but it would be much more cumersome and costly.

In the electronics sector, where miniaturisation is one of the keynotes, it could equally be said that, without plastics, the industry would have developed in a very different manner.

Not only do we use moulded housings for TVs and radios, videos and other entertainment centres, telecommunications and office equipment, but the actual components are encapsulated in plastics, and imprinted and assembled on circuit boards made of sophisticated plastics.

In the sector of business machinery and information storage, the contribution of plastics is almost total. Computers, copiers and other business machines are housed in moulded plastics enclosures and, like TV and video, use plastics extensively in their working parts. Optical information storage media are remarkable achievements in the formulation of ultra-pure materials, and then moulding them with most extraordinary precision.

The total value of the E&E industries in Europe is estimated in 1998 to have amounted to about Euros 400 billion, of which the electronics sector accounted for about 70 %. The plastics and plastics technical components used by the E&E industries are estimated to amount to some 15-20 % of the total value of plastics used in Europe, or about Euros 60-80 billion.

The materials used for technical parts in the E&E industries are very numerous, and often very advanced. The most common plastics are polystyrene, ABS, polycarbonate (PC) and blends of them. These are widely used for equipment housings and enclosures and, in the case of PC, for optical storage media (CDs). Polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) is growing fast, especially for connectors. Polyethylene (PE-LD and PE-HD) and cross-linked polyethylene are used increasingly in applications such as cable sheathing, as an alternative to polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Thermosetting resins also play a major part in E&E products, ranging from heavy-duty switchgear housings in polyester/glass moulding compounds to tiny complex parts with many metal inserts, compression moulded in diallyl phthalate. Epoxy resins and silicones are used for potting and encapsulation of components, while the more familiar thermosets, phenolics and ureas are widely used for domestic switches, sockets and light fittings.

Technical plastics parts are made mainly by injection moulding and, reflecting the trend towards miniaturisation, more than 60 % of the machinery employed has a clamping force of less than 100 tonnes. For large components such as housings, the biggest injection moulding machines have a clamping force of 800-1,200 tonnes. Cables are produced by sophisticated extrusion and co-extrusion techniques.

Output in the E&E industries is estimated to grow at 4-5 % a year in 2000-2005, with electronics increasing at 7 % a year and telecommunications at more than 20 % a year.

The use of plastics technical parts is projected to increase with the introduction of more sophisticated plastics and tailormade products. For companies supplying the telecommunications sector, the increase in annual turnover could be as high as 10-16 % a year.

The key plastics will continue to be PE, PP, PVC, PS, ABS and PC, blends of these. Thermosetting materials (which are constantly under pressure from thermoplastics) will continue to hold a key position. Polycarbonate has a strong future in optical storage discs, but there will be competition from a number of newer materials.

New plastics for highly sophisticated products coming in the near future, are the electrically-conductive polyanilines (PANI) and metallocene polypropylene (PP-met). For liquid crystal polymers (LCPs) there is a promising future in the production of technical precision parts, with the accent on miniaturisation.

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