Impact Resistant Nylon
Nylons, also known as polyamides, are widely used engineering thermoplastics with an excellent balance of strength, stiffness and impact resistance. Under the hood engine parts would be one example where injection molded impact resistant nylon parts are used.
One of the globally dominant nylon manufacturers asked me for ideas on how to make nylon even more impact resistant. In particular, they wanted to do so by identifying an additive that would work even at very low concentration. The task looked extremely difficult, or even impossible at first glance simply because a multi-billion dollar company with almost unlimited R&D resources had failed to find a solution on their own, after years or decades of trying.
It is a tall task to create a solution that has eluded the best talent in that industry. However, I had reason for some hope. Firstly, creativity is very rare, so I have seen one highly creative individual solve problems that had escaped Fortune 100 companies. Secondly, whereas these people had deep nylons expertise, I had broader experience including other plastics and other scientific disciplines. Nevertheless, the task was daunting, so I started by with a literature search which means reading all the science you can find on a topic.
After considering the state-of-the-art, I found a concept that had proven successful before in other plastics. I prepared a presentation, which I showed to the materials experts at the company headquarters. The person who invited me there was supportive and saw the merit in the idea. Surprisingly, their colleague, the person who had asked for new solutions was not only unreceptive to the ideas presented but was actually rude. She refused to consider the idea, even though I presented hard evidence from articles and books showing that it had a high probability of working. As we know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The company did not try my suggestion but the story became very interesting.
One year later, the company discovered that their arch rival had just published a patent on exactly what I had proposed. The patent showed that at a very low addition level of the additive I had suggested, one could dramatically improve the impact resistance of nylon. All of the experimental data were there to show how effective my proposed solution was in reality. The company had lost the opportunity for a major technological advantage and admitted they had made an error. Even worse, their arch-rival now had control of the technology. I once saw a cartoon that said “no business opportunity is ever lost… if you fumble it your competitor will find it!”. That certainly proved to be true in this case. Read more about this story and how companies struggle to innovate in my book Innovation Abyss which is a free download at InnovationAbyss.com.
About a year after I thought this story had finished, the “arch-rival” called me and asked if I knew of a way to improve the impact resistance of their nylon by adding just a little bit of something and I said, “yes, I do, you patented it last year!” and showed them their own patent. That’s another problem with big companies, person A has the solution and person B doesn’t know that they have it. In this case, the inventor with the solution and the person who called me worked less than 20 yards apart on the same floor of the same office building.
Learn more about nylons/polyamides in the Nylon Plastics Handbook (now out of print and hard to find)
Learn more about technique for the impact modification of plastic in the free training webinar from Phantom Plastics