This blog is translated from German with DeepL.
In an interview with Christian Graf, Head of Development
Christian, as Head of Development, you are involved in many different product developments. What challenges do you see with regard to “fire protection” and are there any differences in the products?
I see two challenges. The first is knowing the directives that are applicable in the product and the second challenge is the implementation of the regulations. How to recognize that a product meets the guideline in terms of tape protection or what I do to make my product meet the whole thing. It’s very industry-dependent whether customers know what the current applicable standards are. It is also influenced by whether it is the first product that the customer is launching or whether the customer is already established. If a customer is already established in the industry, the standards are usually already very well observed. It is also advantageous if we have already developed such a product for the customer. Then we usually already know what needs to be observed. It is different when guidelines change. Here, the customer and we are required to notice when the regulations change. There are industries in which there are only guidelines for an overall system, but not for the product. In this case, it is necessary to assess what role our product has in the overall system and in what respect our product is complemented by others. When implementing the standards, the difficulty is usually that the content is formulated and categorized differently.
Basically, there are two main differences with regard to a fire safety test: On the one hand, it is about the materiality, where the specific material of a component is tested individually. On the other hand, it is about the whole assembly. In this case, the assembly is tested in a test center. Or, on the basis of the individual parts, it is necessary to find out which directives and standards make the entire product compliant. The standards that affect the entire product are not really compatible with raw material suppliers afterwards, and it is challenging to find suitable suppliers. It is easier in industries where plastics are very common and the standards are often already clear. An example is the UL94 V0 standard: here the raw material supplier knows which materials reach the V0 category at which wall thickness. When the regulations are not clear, intensive research often becomes necessary.
The response to our article from May 2017 is still great. To what extent were you able to help our customers and what has changed since then?
Here is the difficulty: How do you convert an industry standard, which is described in one sentence, to the key figures of the raw material? We have received many inquiries in this area and have already been able to help, or in some cases are still researching. Certain standards have already changed again. There are industries where the regulations have become stricter, in part we have noticed this or have been made aware of it by the customer. And last but not least, our contribution in May 2017 also raised awareness among customers that fire protection is an important topic.
We often talk about plastics in this area. What challenges do we face there? Are these the same ones of our customers?
As mentioned before, the challenge with plastic is that sometimes the standards are not made for plastic. Like in the construction industry, for example. Here the percentage of plastic is not big. In this industry, it’s more about wood, concrete, etc. There, a lot of work is done with text. Comparisons are often made with materials such as chipboard, but it is difficult to apply them to plastics. Our challenges are, among other things, different industry knowledge, the customers are often deeper in it and the know-how transfer to us is very important. On the other hand, a customer from the construction industry appreciates our know-how in the areas of plastics and fire protection, or how to design a part to meet the standards.
Now, after all, standards and norms often change. What does this mean for products that are already on the market?
Exciting question! It varies greatly from one industry to the next. There are standards that remain valid for a relatively long time after the changes. And there are other industries and standards where a precise date is defined from which the device must comply with the new directives. For example, in the case of an electrical installation, which is still permitted for a relatively long time at time X, but as soon as the electrician changes something, he must ensure that it subsequently complies with the current standards; the same usually applies to fire protection standards.
What can be done to check or bring them back into conformity?
When testing, a theoretical or practical way is suitable. If you have a finished product, you can take it to a testing facility and have them “flame test” the product, and see when it ignites. The theoretical way is analysis. Here, one checks what has changed and the product or the components of the product are adjusted. Afterwards, one checks whether it is still permissible. In the case of an adaptation, often only a geometry or a material adaptation is necessary. For existing products, it is more difficult and cost-intensive, especially with regard to injection-molded parts. For geometry adaptations, tools have to be changed and space conditions have to be rechecked. E.g. V0 materials are always bound to minimum wall thicknesses. Changing materials is very difficult, because each plastic has a different flow and shrinkage behavior and therefore a different material cannot simply be injected in the same mold. It is also difficult with colors. Different materials are difficult to match to the same color and if only one part from an assembly needs to be changed, this can lead to differences from the beginning or over time.
Now, the question often arises as to whether conformity applies to a single component or the entire product. What is a decisive answer here?
Whether it is compliant depends on how I designed it. If I looked at each individual part in the design, then each individual part is compliant. I can then infer that the assembly is also compliant. If every single part is not compliant, I have to check the assembly separately. As a rule, it is more time-consuming if each individual part has to be compliant. On the other hand, I save myself the test, if I can do without the test according to the standard at all.
With so many standards and tests, it’s easy to lose track of everything. How do you reconcile fire protection for the product and effective function?
It’s best to think about fire protection right from the start, e.g. before product development in the specifications.
Often the thought of fire protection is missing in the conception phase. Once the product has been developed and all the functions are already in place, it becomes more difficult to take fire protection requirements into account. Any specifications you know from the beginning are easier to meet than if you have to meet them after the fact. That’s why we always talk to our customers about fire protection at an early stage. Questions like, “Have you thought about this?” “Is there something in your standards and regulations?” are part of our standard in the creative phase.
What are the advantages of including fire protection in the development phase?
The advantage of including fire protection in the development phase is that you can avoid loops and implement fire protection specifications early on.
Do you train your employees specifically in fire safety and are there any related topics that are considered in this area?
We do certain training related to fire safety, but it is not one of our main topics. In many cases, we look directly with the employees at the product to see if fire safety is an issue or not.
Besides fire protection, there are many related topics. For example, requirements in the direction of chemical resistance, which are sometimes also forgotten. Chemical resistance is actually a similar topic to fire protection. At the beginning you just develop the product and then you define the material, at the end the customer comes and says: “the surface must be resistant to cleaning agents” because they clean the product regularly. Often these or other issues are forgotten when designing on the CAD.
Another related topic is the IP protection class (dust or water resistance). Again, things can be considered in the individual part, but others must also be adjusted in the whole assembly. Then certain features may not work if you want to achieve a certain level of protection. The individual part may also become more expensive as a result. For example, if you want to achieve water protection in injection molding, you can’t integrate openings in the part to form undercuts such as snaps, but you need sliders and that makes the mold more expensive.
How can you help other companies in this field if they have little experience in fire protection?
We support in the project systematics, how fire protection has to be considered.
We can actively research standards or materials to find out which standard applies and then take this into account, but unfortunately we are often too late. When the questions come, the product has often already been developed. We are then already in an area where it is a matter of analyzing the majority and making suggestions. Here we are already confronted with business components or marketing. Often the project is in a status where everyone already knows something about the product, marketing knows a design and purchasing has already specified some prices. At worst, the tool has already been manufactured, which then cannot be used. Ideally, the customer comes to us before the development.
Thank you Christian for the in-depth look at a very exciting topic. For more on fire protection, see our tip: Fire protection for plastics.