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How Plastics Have Revolutionised Electronics Industry

From computers and mobile phones to washing machines and light switches, the widespread use of plastic has revolutionised electronics products.

Discovered at the turn of the 20th Century, plastic has transformed so many industries.

The basic idea – making large compounds out of simple repeated units – makes plastic manufacturing a dream. It has helped reduce weight in products and create more durable products that will stand the test of time.

Plastic injection moulding gives companies the opportunity to create challenging and high-volume plastic parts for use on electronics applications.

These plastics fall into two broad categories. Thermoplastics like polyethylene, which can repeatedly be melted down and remoulded and thermosets like urea formaldehyde that, once set, cannot be melted again.

Some electronic plastics will need to have specific properties, such as flame retardance. This is important for products such as electronics enclosures, sockets, switches and wiring components.

These kinds of products may also need to perform in tough, hot, chemically aggressive or humid environments. Protecting crucial electronics.

Other plastics may need to be easy to reuse. Making them more recyclable to give the product an environmentally conscious edge.

Why plastics are perfect for electronic products

Plastics generally share a solid range of properties that make them good for electronic products. Plastics, of course, is a broad category that encompasses lots of different materials.

Not every plastic will have all these characteristics, we will go into more detail about individual plastics in the following section.

Electrical insulation

In a lot of ways, plastic is almost the opposite of metal. Nowhere is this truer than in how the materials conduct electricity. Most metals will conduct electricity because electrons can move freely through a metal structure, while most plastics are electrical insulators.

That is why most wires are made from metal like copper and most wire sleeving is made from plastic like PVC to insulate the wiring and keep people safe.

Heat insulation

Most plastics are also poor conductors of heat. Heat is transferred when vibrating molecules smash into one another, but because plastics don’t have a lot of free molecules heat transfers more slowly.

This is handy in electrical applications because electronic systems can generate a lot of heat and become uncomfortable or start to melt. Be thankful of this next time you put some bread in your plastic toaster.

Lightweight

Many early electronic products were not light. Products that were designed to be carried around the home – like vacuum cleaners and early ‘portable’ computers – could seriously weigh a user down.

Because plastic is made from long chains of intertwined polymers, even lightweight products are durable enough to stand up to daily use, reducing electricity consumption and running costs.

Flexibility

Plastic is being used to help create some of the most advanced electronic products on the market. Concept consumer products like bendy smartphones and wrap-around watches use a flexible plastic substrate rather than glass to support these products.

Flexible products aren’t just attractive as a gimmick, they are also more durable and functional for certain applications.

Conductivity

While most plastics are electrical insulators, some can conduct electricity like metal. Polyacetylene was the first conductive polymer when it was discovered in 1974. The three scientists who discovered it were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2000.

Conductive plastics are being used to create some of the most exciting new electronic systems available. Plastic solar cells are a cheap, lightweight and efficient way of converting the sun’s energy into electricity.

Design freedom

Plastic is often held up as a miracle material. Single-use plastics like bags, bottles and other packaging come in for criticism, but plastic has also sent mankind into space and created life-saving heart vents.

One reason why plastic is so popular is because it gives so much freedom to designers. They can use any colour, any finish and any texture to make a product look exactly how they want it to. And with a range of manufacturing options, complex designs can often be realised easily as well.

Waterproof

One thing we know about electronic products is that they don’t really like to get wet. Wet electronics can stop working and can even be dangerous.

Today, more and more electronic products are advertised as being waterproof, something that would not be possible without plastics.

Durability

Plastic lasts. They don’t corrode like metals or rot away like organic materials. Many plastics are oil and acid resistant and won’t shatter or smash, perfect for reliable products.

Energy-efficient

Generally, people don’t think of plastics as being very ‘green’. But plastics can be environmentally friendly at the production stage.

Compared with bulkier alternatives like metal and organic compounds, plastic requires significantly less work to get it to the desired shape and size. Production is easier and uses less fuel in manufacturing.

Mass-production

One of the main benefits of using plastics is that they are easy to manufacture. There are a range of plastic manufacturing techniques, some of which can be used for quick and hassle-free volume production, like plastic injection moulding.

In many ways, plastics and electronics have a shared history with improvements made to the plastics manufacturing processes in the 1950s and early 1960s coinciding with the proliferation of available consumer electronics.

Types of plastics used in electronics

Different types of plastics have different applications in electronics. The following plastics have certain properties that make them useful for the different applications.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

Telephone handsets, keyboards, monitors, computer housing

Aikyd resins

Circuit breakers, switchgear

Amino resins

Lighting fixtures

Epoxy resins

Electrical components

Ethylene vinyl acetate

Freezer door strips, vacuum lean hoses, handle-grips

Phenol formaldehyde

Fuse boxes, knobs, switches, handles

Polyacetal

Business machine parts

Polyamide

Food processor bearings, adaptors

Polycarbonate

Telephones

Polyesters

Business machine parts, coffee machines, toasters

Polyethylene

Cable & wire insulation

Polymethyl pentane

Circuit boards, microwave grills

Polyphenylene oxide

Coffee machines, TV housings

Polyphenylene sulphide

Hairdryer grilles, element bases, transformers

Polypropylene

Kettles

Polystyrene

Refrigerator trays/linings, TV cabinets

Polysulphone

Microwave grills

Polyvinyl chloride

Cable and wire insulation, cable trunking

Styrene acrylonitrile

Hi-fi covers

Urea formaldehyde

Fuse boxes, knobs, switches