The first synthetic polymer was invented in the 1860s and over the last 100 years plastics have saturated our world, changed the way that we live and plastic design has evolved with technology. In 1946, American inventor James Watson Hendry built the first screw injection machine, which allowed more control over the speed and quality of the injection. This machine also allowed material to be mixed before injection, so that coloured or recycled plastic could be added to virgin material and mixed thoroughly before being injected.
Modern plastics have no inherent colour. Like traditional materials they can be painted but colouring can also be, and often is, integral to the manufacturing process. Plastics can be any shade or tone with the result that the same product can be manufactured in different colours and a single product can have a range of hues, can also be transparent and translucent.
Plastics perform in ways not found in traditional materials enabling new design, fabrication and function solutions. Their flexibility inspired the redesign of common objects, for example the invention of the snap joint, an assembly method for interlocking components. The ‘living hinge’, a way of linking rigid plastics with flexible pieces of the same plastic in a single manufacturing operation, has provided new design opportunities. Plastics’ mouldability and their capacity for one-piece moulding have inspired new forms for traditional products.
Plastics contribute to sustainable design by, among other ways, saving energy but their long lifespan means that their use in products with short useful lives is problematic. Irresponsible discarding of plastics generates pollution. Plastics’ manufacture uses less energy compared with traditional materials and the products are lighter. For example, for the same amount of bags, it takes one lorry to deliver plastic and seven to deliver paper bags. Plastics are often the materials of choice for reusable products; re-use saves energy consumption and prevents waste.
Plastics offer affordable alternatives to traditional materials and benefit from lower production costs whilst retaining aesthetic appeal. By replacing traditional, usually more expensive, materials, plastics have greatly increased access to design.
One of the pioneers in the use of plastics materials in product design was A.H (Woody) Woodfull. Born in 1912, at a time when materials such as Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde), the first wholly man-made plastic, had only been around for five years, Woodfull trained as a silversmith and studied product design. He was appointed as product designer to British Industrial Plastics (BIP) in 1934 and was appointed head of BIP’s newly formed Product Design Unit in 1951 until his retirement in 1970. Whilst there, the unit's Design Advisory Service provided design consultancy to companies developing products in plastics, with the aim of improving the public's perception of the quality of plastic products and increasing demand for BIP's materials. Woodfull was a passionate advocate for the emerging role of the product designer within industry, and that the use of the right plastics materials for the right job was of the utmost importance. Indeed, he was quite vociferous in his condemnation of the use of poorly chosen materials to achieve a cheap, quick fix, product that wasn’t up to the job, resulting in the bad reputation of plastics.
It is hard to imagine a time when the use of plastics in product design was a relatively new phenomenon. At Rutland Plastics we still maintain Woodfull’s belief that great design results in great products and we have written a design guide to help our customers optimise their products for injection moulding.
This blog has been written in association with the Museum of design in Plastics (MoDiP). MoDiP is a specialist resource at the Arts University Bournemouth. It is the only accredited museum in the UK with a focus on plastics. It is the UK’s leading resource for the study and interpretation of design in plastics.