Microban, located in Huntersville, North Carolina, is a company specializing in polymer and textiles that produces antimicrobial and antifungal technologies.
On the surface, Microban’s product is relatively unassuming: tiny, hard pellets of plastic, each about the size of a popcorn kernel, but found in more than 1,000 products in 30 countries--architectural window shades, countertops, bath mats, pet dishes, exercise gear, sponges, sandals and pillows, to name a few.
One of the company’s biggest manufacturing challenges is that each product requires a new formulation of the material. When one of Microban’s customers manufactures a product, that customer incorporates Microban’s proprietary polymer pellets in with its own. The two products combine in a melted stream of liquid plastic, and the finished product resists microbial buildup. This makes products that are on the consumer market more sanitary and safe.
The process requires Microban’s polymer engineers and chemists to work closely with customers to understand product substrates, performance features, and manufacturing processes to ensure compatibility with the customers’ products.
A Crystal-Clear Challenge
Recently, the company was working on a new compound and running into complications. Instead of blending invisibly into the customer’s crystal-clear polymer, the compound was burning during the manufacturing process, creating a finished product flecked throughout with bits of black.
Microban reached out to the Polymers Center of Excellence (PCE) for help getting its compound to successfully blend into the product. PCE is a non-profit 501(c)6 organization whose mission is to increase knowledge, provide technical support, and assist in the development of emerging technologies in the plastics industry. It’s part of the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the state’s official representative of the MEP National Network.
Most of PCE’s customers do not own compounding extruders, nor do they have complete labs or molding machines. PCE can develop a compound, first in small quantities, then in small lots, then in truckload quantities, and then mold the test bars and samples. PCE can test the compound using those test samples and produce the test results all under one roof. PCE is also able to evaluate how a new compound will flow into a mold using MoldEx 3D simulation software, and provide training to the operators of the extrusion or injection molding technicians once the product goes mainstream.
Microban had its own testing equipment, but not everything it needed. PCE was able to provide access to the equipment and expertise Microban needed for its new compound. Microban’s product required dryers, compounding extruders, and a high-precision feeder to produce acceptable results. This process was further aided by PCE’s in-house experts, who knew how to make the specific compounds on those extrusion lines.
Tom McHouell directs the compounding-focused Polymers Technology Center that is housed within PCE. Recalling the collaboration, “we ran some additional trials and the material performed much better,” he said. “It had a better look to it.”
Microban now uses PCE for production purposes and to evaluate and troubleshoot new antimicrobial formulas.
“It’s not just the equipment that’s available for us to use—it’s the people who run the equipment who really make the difference,” said Burke Nelson, Microban’s director of materials engineering. “I learn something every time I go down there.
Microban continuously develops new products for its customers with PCE's expert assistance, and “for every dollar the company spends at PCE, the return is at least tenfold in new business generated,” shared Nelson.
Phil Mintz is the director of the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP) and the executive director of NC State Industry Expansion Solutions (IES).