Innovation is a constant at Microban
On the exterior, Microban’s product is relatively unassuming; tiny, hard pellets of plastic, each about the size of a popcorn kernel. When the bits of polymer are incorporated into their customers’ manufacturing processes, however, magic happens.
Microban, a global leader in antimicrobial and antifungal technologies with headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, specializes in polymer and textile products. When one of Microban’s customers manufactures a product, that customer incorporates Microban’s proprietary polymer pellets in with their own. The two products combine in a melted stream of liquid plastic, and the finished product resists microbial buildup.
“An antibacterial application, where you’re looking to protect against bacteria, might be something like food cutting boards,” explains Burke Nelson, Director of Materials Engineering at Microban. “When Microban technology is incorporated into a food cutting board, it helps to protect that board from any bacterial build-up. As you slice and dice on your cutting board, you don’t wear the material off.”
The range of products available on the market that use Microban’s technology is huge: there are architectural window shades, countertops, bath mats, pet dishes, exercise gear, sponges, sandals and pillows, to name just a few. Each product requires a new formulation of material, and hence an encyclopedic knowledge of how polymers works.
“The Polymers Center of Excellence really helps us, because they have a very broad experience with many different kinds of polymers,” says Nelson.
The Polymers Center of Excellence, or PCE, was chartered in 1998 to support, maintain and encourage the strength and growth of the plastics industry in the state of North Carolina. PCE focuses on four services: injection molding and extrusion training, compounding, materials testing, and production.
Microban first approached PCE sixteen years ago when the company was having difficulty with a new compound, which should have blended invisibly into their customer’s crystal-clear polymer. Instead, the finished product was flecked throughout with bits of black. Plastics Processing Engineer Wrenn Wilkinson explains that the Microban compound was burning during the manufacturing process. They thought that perhaps PCE could help.
“We ran some additional trials and the material performed much better. It had a better look to it,” says Tom McHouell, who directs the compounding-focused Polymers Technology Center that is housed within PCE.
Now, Microban uses PCE for production, as well as to evaluate and troubleshoot new antimicrobial formulas. Because Microban and PCE are located so close to one another, collaboration is easy. Nelson says that the return on
investment is clear; for every dollar Microban spends at PCE, the return is at least tenfold in new business generated. But some of the positive results are less tangible.
“I learn something every time I go down there,” says Nelson. “One of the chief advantages of working with an organization like the Polymers Center is that we could never afford to have that kind of expertise in house all the time. So, 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.”