INSIDE WALTER PACK
LSustainability is one of the great challenges facing industry in the 21st century. Beyond fashions or trends, large industrial companies are already applying circular economy criteria to their processes and are demanding recyclable and reusable components from their suppliers to achieve the so-called zero-waste. The automotive sector is one of those that has begun to demand this type of solutions, although still timidly.
The whole sector knows that this is an irreversible path, but many manufacturers are reluctant to take the step for economic reasons or because of distrust about the behavior of the new materials.
Walter Pack is one of the companies at the forefront of this research. The work of its R&D department has led it to participate in specialized forums such as Folien + Fahrzeug / Plastic Films in Mobility in Würzburg to present, together with the Dutch technology center TNO, its design for recycling initiatives produced using IME (In Mold Electronics) technology, as part of its commitment to the circular economy.
The head of Walter Pack’s R&D Department, Iñigo Erhardt, explains what the main demands of large automotive manufacturers are: “Our customers are beginning to demand solutions and components that are recyclable and at a suitable price, without losing any of the technical or aesthetic requirements they impose on conventional parts,” he explains. To respond to these demands, his department is working on three lines of research:
Recycling and recyclability of the final product
Walter Pack’s core business focuses on In-Mold-Forming (IMF) technology, which brings together in a single piece all the elements and materials that make it up.
“The strength of our research lies in everything related to the disassembly of the part, which is essential for recycling its components. And there are two options for this: we can carry out this disassembly to extract the materials that can be recycled or, from a broader perspective, participate in the design of the part together with the manufacturer from the beginning to integrate components that are compatible with each other and can be recycled.
In other words, the essence of eco-design,” he explains. The great advantage of this trend is that it makes it possible to move towards zero-defects, i.e. to optimize efficiency and reduce scrap and defective material to the minimum possible.
The evaluation and reuse of the waste generated
The aim of this line of research is to study how the waste generated by Walter Pack can be used for reuse. “We characterize the waste we generate, try to evaluate it, look at possible areas for reuse and, if we are unable to do so, we try to find ways to reuse it, we are looking for someone to do it.
This research has opened up a new avenue of business because as sustainability and recycling requirements increase, many manufacturers will demand our waste for its characteristics and specificity,” he says.
In conjunction with the Color&Trim area, the R&D department is studying how to make specific decorations from recycled materials that also have that appearance.
“Manufacturers are not only looking to make the most of and reuse the components that make up their vehicles but are also demanding parts that have a real appearance of recycled material: this is a trend in the current market that we are already working on,” says Iñigo Erhardt.
But how can Walter Pack dispense with more than two decades of cutting-edge research and development in terms of materials, processes, tests, etc., and tackle the manufacture of new components with different materials and properties? Although this way of working may seem new, the work carried out by Walter Pack’s R&D Department does not start “from scratch”. Iñigo Erhardt explains that the Basque company’s commitment to sustainability is a constant that it has been working on for several years but has now taken on greater interest. In this task, the R&D manager mentions the existence of two main challenges:
The compatibility of technologies
. One of the requirements imposed by manufacturers when commissioning this type of solution is that of economic containment. That’s why Erhardt says that one of the challenges facing the R&D department is “to make that new material compatible with our technology.”
“We have to look for that compatibility to avoid additional investments that would complicate the processing of that new material. How? We rely on partners to help us recycle our own materials, or we look for suppliers to provide us with ready-made materials for the applications we need,” he says.
Both international regulatory standards and the manufacturers themselves require their suppliers to meet a multitude of technical requirements, something that also applies to new materials. “We must ensure that these recycled and non-virgin materials meet customer specifications, and that they are as robust as conventional materials in terms of resistance to chemicals, hardness, scratching, climatic effects, aging, etc.,” says Iñigo Erhardt.
Although research into these materials is still in its infancy in the automotive industry, Walter Pack’s R&D Department has already developed two projects aimed at recycling and reusing plastic parts in line with the Zero Waste trend.
1. Reuse of its own waste.
This project aims to minimize the generation of plastic waste through its subsequent use within the concept of circular economy. “We are investigating how to reuse the waste we generate, crush it and generate materials to be able to inject the plastic. We have modified the polycarbonate formation of the waste so that it can be successfully injected. The only limitation we have found is color: we are currently recycling the waste with ink but our goal is to make it transparent so we can create backlit parts with recycled material.” The project, on which he is working together with the Gaiker technology center, will be completed by the end of the year.
2. European Treasure project.
This initiative, which will last a year, aims to create a piece of plastronics with recycled materials that can be put to good use. “We have created a prototype of a piece of plastronics to achieve the disassembly of all the materials that compose it and then promote both its use and that of the LED lights that make it up. With the Treasure project, which we are developing together with the Dutch technology center TNO, we are going a step further and trying to complete this task entirely with sustainable materials,” he says.
The work of the R&D department and the projects in which it is involved place Walter Pack in a position of competitive strength in the field of sustainability and the automotive industry. Despite the resistance of some brands, several leading manufacturers have already assumed the convenience of betting on Ecodesign and involving suppliers such as Walter Pack in the product conception phase to implement solutions that help them meet their sustainability goals. “We can offer and contribute ideas, but each product has its own solution, especially from the point of view of materials. That’s why Ecodesign is so important, that they involve us in the making of the product from the very first moment to meet their objectives,” he concludes.