Light Guide and Light Pipes – A Specialty of Team 1 Plastics
As a plastic injection molding company for the mobility industry, Team 1 Plastics specializes in precision, transparent light guides and light pipes for electronic controls and switches for a wide variety of applications, such as automotive, household appliances, and recreational vehicles.
“Light guides and light pipes are used almost anywhere you need to illuminate something,” said Craig Carrel, President and Co-owner of Team 1 Plastics. “We have been supplying these transparent parts for automotive applications in interior/exterior lighting, HVAC controls, switches, instrumentation, and other electronics for over 30 years.” In addition, these parts also have many other industrial and consumer applications. For example, a manufacturer of washing machines uses light pipes to illuminate all of the electronic controls on the appliance.
Although the terms “light guides” and “light pipes” are interchangeable, most people make the distinction based on the shape of the plastic part. Todd Bowen, Sales Development Manager at Team 1 Plastics, explained, “Light pipes are usually referred to as a transparent part that has a cylinder shape. Many light pipes are simplistic and only illuminate a surface area while a light guide could be any shape and very complex, lighting up 10 to 20 different things.”
Team 1 Plastics has been manufacturing high-quality light guides and light pipes for almost its entire history. Although the original three partners did not have a background in acrylic (PMMA) or polycarbonate (PC) resins when they started the company, its first organic customer, I I Stanley, required those materials for its plastic lighting parts.
Since then, it has become a key competency. Team 1 Plastics has literally manufactured millions of transparent light pipes and light guides. In 2019, light pipes and light guides were 10% of its overall business. Bowen said, “Many of these parts are extremely small with tight tolerances and require special processing and handling requirements to meet the tight quality standards of our customers.”
Producing high-quality transparent parts comes with some challenges, such as avoiding black specks, voids, or bubbles. To avoid black specks, Carrel said that Team 1 Plastics manufactures all of its transparent parts on Sodick injection molding machines with its plunger-style injection system, reducing contaminants that would normally be experienced with a traditional “check ring” style molding machine. Carrel said, “We’re using a type of molding machine that’s well suited for transparent parts. And, we try to dedicate clear material to specific dryers and injection molding machines.” He added that with the company’s preventative maintenance systems on its screw and barrel changes, “We are very aggressive to make sure we have a clean melt flow.”
Voids or bubbles often occur when manufacturing thick light pipes. Carrel explained that the thicker the part is, the more pressure required and the longer the cycle time in the injection molding machine. “You have to hold it in the molding machine until the part sets up and run the molding machine and mold hotter than normal to avoid bubbles or voids. With our 30 years of experience, Team 1 Plastics has been able to very successfully mold a wide range of very thick light pipes.”
Producing high-quality transparent parts also requires good communication with the customer. Carrel said, “With light guides and light pipes, you build a mold that you think is going to work, but the key part is working with your customers to adjust it to meet the customers’ visual illumination requirements.”
He then shared an example. “One of our customers was producing the heater control system for the Toyota Tacoma, and asked Team 1 to manufacture a very complex light guide for it. There were several hundred dimensions on the part. We worked very closely with our customer as Toyota continually required adjustments and changes to get the light exactly where it was supposed to be.” Carrel explained that it took more than ten iterations with hundreds of adjustments before the part was approved by Toyota. “That’s an example of how we work closely with our customers over the launch of the product to ensure the part meets the customers’ expectations.”
How light guides and light pipes are handled is another key, Carrel said. “A lot of the parts require gate cuts. Because you don’t want the parts to get scratched, you need special handling. Team 1 Plastics utilizes automation for this. We have automatic gate cutting robots and end-of-arm tools that allow us to do that.” Some customers require special packaging for light guides and light pipes. “Our systems can pack them in whatever configuration needed.”
“Because people are not doing the gate cuts or putting the parts into trays, we can make these parts with a lot less labor content than most of competitors,” Carrel said. “We’ve taken our time, really honed our systems, and have a really stellar track record of high-performance in making these parts at an exceptional quality level and a very cost-competitive price.”
Team 1 Plastics is posed and excited for the opportunities it sees in light guides and light pipes both now and into the future.
“Light guides and light pipes continue to be a part of the future,” Carrel said. “In automobiles, there’s a move away from some of the traditional controls, such as HVAC, using a lot of buttons and knobs, to touch panels and screens. There’s also a broader use of lighting for interior illumination. In one sense, we’re seeing a decline of some parts used, but there’s going to be an expansion overall as we move to more autonomous kinds of vehicles.”