Since its founding in 1936, the plastics processing company Vitalo (Belgium) has grown to become one of the world’s largest thermoformers. Thermoforming is a manufacturing process where a plastic sheet is heated to a pliable forming temperature, formed to a specific shape in a mold, and trimmed to create the final product. Vitalo produces both thin (<1.5 mm) and thick (> 3 mm) components. While the former mainly include packaging trays for electronic and medical components, well-known applications for the latter include side panels and roofs for agricultural machinery (e.g. John Deere and Caterpillar). Additionally, Vitalo manufactures enclosures for medical equipment such as MRI scanners from General Electrics.
Despite its strong market position, Vitalo questioned its future within the traditional thermoforming market because of margin pressure from the East. This uncertainty was the start of an intense collaboration between Vitalo and CREAX.
In a first step, CREAX provided an overview of the state of the art of thermoforming. The goal of this phase, which combines patent analysis, specialized literature screening and advanced web browsing, is to give a good overview of what has been documented by others and to avoid re-inventing the wheel in later stages.
Screening of patents revealed new technological developments such as thermoforming of foamed plastics, thermoforming of composite materials and micro thermoforming as an alternative to ‘micro-injection molding’ for the production of electronic components.
By defining Vitalo’s products in terms of their properties and functions, CREAX has constructed the unique ‘DNA’* of thermoformed products. This abstraction enabled systematic searching for applications where the combination of these properties and functions is required. In addition to identifying new markets, CREAX spotted growth opportunities within existing markets, such as the transportation sector in which Vitalo already disposes of the necessary contacts.
Based on the first phase, two parallel innovation strategies were initiated in the second phase:
Product innovation: can new technologies be used in existing markets?
The state of the art report served as a guide for identifying product-market fits for the spotted technologies. Based on this report Vitalo proposed both short and long term actions with regard to domains such as foam materials and lightweight core-moulding.
Thermoforming of foam materials in a single-step operation opens up many new possibilities, including the creation of rigid double-sided acoustic and thermal insulation panels. Vitalo is currently screening a variety of thermoformable foam materials with the purpose of integrating them into existing products.
In lightweight core-molding (i.e. encapsulation of a light core material inside a thermoformed outer shell) the positive features of thermoforming and 3D printing can be maximized. This combination allows for the production of rigid lightweight structures, overcoming the issue of fragility often observed for 3D printed objects. Vitalo is currently investigating this ‘blue ocean’, i.e. an unknown and unexplored market space where no competition is present.
By defining Vitalo’s products in terms of their properties and functions, CREAX has constructed the unique DNA of thermoformed products. This abstraction enabled systematic searching for applications where the combination of these properties and functions are required. In addition to identifying new markets, CREAX spotted growth opportunities within existing markets, such as the transportation sector in which Vitalo already disposes of the necessary contacts. Within this sector, the ‘aftermarket’ for cars, the interior finishing of vans and transport of animals appears to be interesting. Opportunities also exist in the field of animal housing.