The History of Plastics – Innovation in Action

Product evolution is the essence of business innovation.  Some products are merely evolved with advances that match the current societal trends, some are evolved to match a need, and many are evolved after market research found a hidden consumer desire. The best way to explain the way that products evolve is to actually use a product as an example. This article will explain evolution as it has occurred in plastics over the years, beginning with glass.

A Short History

Glass has been around since before AD time.  Even at its invention, people were able to use chemicals to give it different shades and colors. Glass artwork was formed out of a glass blowing gun, where the glass would get heated top high levels of heat so that it was liquid like and could be manipulated.  These liquidated sectors of glass were then mixed with different hues of color until they were made into art forms similar to pottery but with a completely different look.  It was like pottery, but as if made completely out of a gem.

Plastic, however, was invented during the 18th century.  Historians argue whether the first form of plastic was Parkesine or Bakelite.  Parkesine was entirely organic, made out of natural materials and could be heated and molded just like plastic can today.  Bakelite was made out of synthetic materials and took a harder mold than Parkesine.  Some have compared Bakelite to today’s material called Resin.

Glass Had It’s Uses

However, to say that plastic was made at the time that it was is not to say that the use of glass for certain products evolved into plastic at the same time. Glass had its advantages.  Throughout the history of the milk carton, for instance, production owners found that glass could be etched into, words could be engraved or embossed into it, and the glass was a perfect conduit for color stains.  Glass was also useful in many different forms according to its thickness. If producers wanted to provide lighter weight containers, they only needed to thin the glass that served as the casing for the product. They could still do all those neat things to the glass whether or not it was thick. They could also reshape the glass so that its solid shape would form smaller sized products with a larger carrying capacity. The glass could be heated and disinfected without having to worry about it losing shape.

The Flaws of Glass

So what were the flaws of using glass? Unfortunately, bringing yesterday’s times to today, things don’t just conventionally get evolved, unless there is a reason to evolve them.  In this instance, the even think to consider alternative materials, there needs to be some reason to dissolve the old material.  Manufacturers of glass products did everything they could to the glass.  Glass was about as perfect as they could get it.  However, there was something about it that they could not resolve.  This something had to do with the flexibility of the glass.

For glass to withhold shape and not crack, break, shatter, or chip, the material needed to be extremely thick.  To make it thick would largely increase its weight, as well as its price.  Glass is made out of materials such as silicon, and when it is made thick, a lot of that material is put into the mold and compressed.  This means that the thicker glass was also way more expensive than the thinner forms.  Thinner forms of glass would break often.  This was all due to the inflexibility of the material once it hardened.

Along Came Wax

Before plastics came around, researchers were studying how to fill container molds with wax.  Wax was made from a material that was really close to that of a thick liquid, more so than a solid.  The hardened form of the wax material was much more flexible than glass.  It allowed for movement and as the wax bended with surroundings, it maintained its form up until a certain pressure point in the bend.  It seemed like a great answer to the problem, except that wax was brittle.  Over time, the material would begin to loose bonds and the large scale bonding would begin to break apart.  The material would start to crumble, or flake off.  Wax was not a long term fix.

So manufacturers needed something that would stick together, be flexible, and last for years to come – without any signs of degradation. They also noticed that consumers were getting frustrated with the amount of time that the current beverage containers were able to maintain the quality of the beverage. Certain atmospheric influences were able to pass through the glass, especially when the glass was thin in order to keep the weight low and the price low, and this would cause the beverage to start degrading its value quicker than consumers could drink it.  Contaminants like sunlight and other particles that could pass through the glass when it was heated from the sun, caused the majority this degradation.

Since these manufacturers were avid at listening to the input from dairy producers about their customers complaints, they were able to gear their sales to the dairy producers by solving the customers concerns for them.  In other words, the customers wanted the food to last longer, and the manufacturers decided to make that their responsibility.  Although the wax did help some, it didn’t help all the way.  The beverages stuck to it and the containers crumbled too quickly.  Plus, the containers were thick for the wax to be strong enough.

Along Came Plastics

In response to the problems with wax, many new plastics were formed.  The first kind of plastic to be used as a container was polyethylene.  It was a little less flexible than the first plastic, Parkesine, and less stiff than the second plastic, Bakelite.  Bakelite was used in autoparts and telephones in order to replace ivory, while the Parkesine was best as a coating, carrying similar capabilities to wax. Before Bakelite came about, there was a plastic compound called celluloid that was used for billiard balls, dental fixtures, and even thin applications like ping pong balls and photography film.  There was also Nylon, a compound that is heavily used today.  It was placed in camping gears, bags, clothing and other similar products.  Plastics became a major manufacturing trend.

The Good thing about Plastic

There are many reasons why plastics became so popular.  Plastic materials were the only thing that could be molded outside of brittle clay and glass. Furthermore, the thin application of the plastics to other materials provided a very flexible coating that could bend and move without breaking and could protect the other materials against the weather. Plastics companies could creatively mold the material into any design their clients wanted them to. Beverage companies were able to use their plastic containers as a symbol of their company.  Plastics had a variety of different uses.

Another new property about plastics is that the manufacturers could change the compound to make it more or less transparent. Even thin forms of the plastic could be made so that the containers were not see through. Companies that were selling products contained in the plastics could target audiences that valued privacy. Others could use the same material to get creative with the liquid portion of the beverages so that it looked certain ways against different colored transparent forms of the plastic.  The new material created a highly creative new platform with which to make new products.

After Effects

Eventually the same sort of issues that people had with the glass used to make the containers soon carried over into other glass products.  For instance, there were problems with windows and tables and shower doors.  To make windows shatterproof against heavy winds and earthquakes, homeowners began to have their windows coated with polyurethane and other plastic coverings.  Eventually, manufacturers began to wonder if the same method of weaving the plastics into other materials could work with glass. After a few experiments, they noticed that it would.

Innovation Abounds

These experts were able to come up with a design that could benefit from the capabilities of glass, but also protect the glass with the capabilities of the polyurethane.  This is where the glass doors with the polyurethane glass come in, and the table tops as well.  The glass is strong and easy to clean like regular glass, but the new level of flexibility allows the glass to be shatterproof and resistant to breaking or chipping. Stronger forms of plastic have even been mixed with glass to create a bulletproof window.  This design was one of the strongest materials created on the market, even though it was highly flexible.

So, just because of the basic needs to reduce breaking, chipping and shattering and increase the barrier capabilities of one product, the second was able to evolve into an ever more popular material to be combined with many things.  Plastics are now even being evolved so that they no longer need to use petroleum, but that they can use current bio-renewable petroleum replacement products in the generation of plastics, just as much as these materials are used as a fuel.

By keeping an ear out and resolving a problem for one client according to their expressed need, which was merely just to please the customer, these inventors were able to please many other people in return. The consumers got caught by the new material and wanted more and more things that had that resources incorporated.  The product kept up with times and now has continuously experienced new forms.  The evolutionary process of plastics is entirely derived by need and demand rather than pure scientific desire.  Learning its history expresses the true value of common day innovations.

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