Products of the Imagination

National Polystyrene Systems


National Polystyrene Systems makes things out of expanded polystyrene. What it makes is up to you, because the only limits are on the individual customer’s imagination than on what the company can manufacture or mould.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is an economical, versatile, lightweight, rigid, plastic foam insulation material produced from solid beads of polystyrene. The end product is made up of fine spherical cells that have an extremely low density. EPS has a very high strength to weight ratio that, dependant on the density, offers exceptional compressive and flexural strength and dimensional stability characteristics. It can be moulded or shaped to meet almost any design requirement.

Architects, civil engineers, marine engineers, builders, concreters, packaging companies, creative designers – all make use of the advantages of EPS for insulation, building applications (including cladding and concreting), road and bridge works, flotation, protective packaging, and even theming (creative works in theme parks and on buildings).

NPS General Manager, Mike O’Brien, explains that there is a housing boom in Queensland, since the last election, to the point where “products we supply for domestic building, or domestic concrete slabs, are being sold to capacity right across the market. We have experienced higher demand than ever before in our existence. We can never guarantee how long that will continue but it has been going on for the best part of a year already.”

NPS as a company was taken over by Sydney-based KANJI Group, an Indian owned conglomerate, in 2001 and officially renamed Metecno Pty Ltd, although the NPS moniker was retained as being descriptive of the company’s activities. As Mike explains, “The construction industry is our main market but there are a number of areas within it – we are involved in the supply of waffle pods, which are part of a concrete slab these days, and we do a large amount of business with marina builders and supply a lot of materials to builders of roads and bridges.” Waffle pods made from expanded polystyrene used in raft slabs provide many benefits over traditional slabs including reducing the effects of land heave, minimising costly concrete usage, ease of estimating steel / concrete requirements, and thermal benefits.

The company maintains two plants – the main one in Queensland (Acacia Ridge, a large site which is probably Australia’s largest single user of EPS) and another subsidiary plant at Sunshine in Victoria. The material is received in a polymeric state, shipped in mainly from Korea or China in bulk, and processed locally. Basically, there is one type of EPS, although it can be made in different densities for different applications.

The raw beads or granules are expanded by free exposure to steam to form larger beads, each consisting of a series of non-interconnecting cells. After expansion, the beads still contain small quantities of both condensed steam and pentane gas. As they cool, air gradually diffuses into the pores, replacing, in part, the other components. The expanded polystyrene beads are moulded to form blocks or customised products. The mould shapes and forms the pre-foam, and steam is again used to promote expansion. During moulding, the steam causes fusion of each bead to its neighbours, thus forming a homogeneous product. Following a short cooling period, the moulded block is removed from the machine and after further conditioning, may be cut or shaped as required using hot wire elements or other appropriate techniques. The finished product can be then laminated with steel, foils, plastics, fibreboard or other facings to form many and varied building products.

EPS is nearly all air, which means it is expensive to ship. That accounts for the fact that this material is manufactured and finished in Australia rather than a ‘low-cost’ Asian country. “In itself it is not a highly expensive product but it is very voluminous, so it is a good idea to manufacture locally to where it is going to be used,” says Mike. Nevertheless, NPS supplies product as far away from Brisbane as Sydney and Canberra.

Mike says there is virtually no end to the uses to which the material can be put. “It is a product of the imagination,” he says. “You can pretty much do anything with it. We have had university students using it to sculpt shapes.” EPS is sold as sheet, or can be profiled or hot-wire cut. “If you want something simple such as sheets, we have machines that can cut to the size you wish, rather like slicing a very large loaf of bread. If you want something complex, it can be done.”

NPS has what is almost certainly the largest block mould in the country, measuring 5.1m by 1.2m by 1.2m). One of the issues with making a block of EPS of such size is achieving complete consistency of density throughout the block, and Mike says this is in part a question of experience and quality of production. “If it is not monitored correctly, it can be very difficult” to get the right consistency. NPS has a highly sophisticated machine from Germany that ensures (in the right hands) a thoroughly consistent and top-quality product. Mike says he has been in the industry for more than 30 years and seen the output of all his competitors but has not seen anything to top the output of the NPS equipment.

Apart from the construction and infrastructure industries, NPS does good business with EIFS systems. Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems are a way of applying an insulating, decorative and protective finish to exterior walls that can be installed on any type of construction. An EIFS insulates and provides weather protection in a selection of shapes, colours, and textures, and can simulate almost any architectural style or finish or stand by itself as an architectural finish.

EPS is also a first rate packaging system, although unlike some competitors this is not NPL’s main business. The company does supply some leading seafood marketers, as well as other customers who want to store or transport goods. EPS works well because of its insulative and moisture resistant properties and high compression resistance. Packaging materials made from EPS keep perishable items fresh, fragile items protected, are fully recyclable, and can be stacked on top of each other to fit perfectly into containers or other transport options.

Given the current concern about plastic waste (in the seas around Australia, as well as elsewhere), it is worth pointing out that NPS produces a material that is fully recyclable. Mike served for many years on the relevant industry body overseeing environmental concerns; he says that in any case the worry about EPS is largely visual – it is essentially inert and does not leach chemicals into the soil or degrade the water table, for example. But it is lightweight and very visible and can be an eyesore if not dealt with responsibly. “We are very conscious of this and we collect the waste from our jobs,” he says. Customers frequently need to trim products and so produce offcuts or waste, so NPL takes it back, re-using much of it, with regranulation and re-dusting machinery, back into new waffle pods. The remainder is compacted and shipped by the container-load to China where it is basically melted down and made into anything from picture frames to tiles (the Chinese never waste anything if they can possibly find a use for it and the sheer volumes required in China make it an economically viable business).

Indeed, unlike most alternative insulation materials, polystyrene is easily recycled. Recycling saves money and energy and reduces the impact on the environment. In fact, EPS is not seen as waste in most European countries but as a valuable resource; it is the most easily recycled of all the insulating materials and therefore most easy to align with the “cradle to cradle (C2C)” principle. And to be sure, as with its products themselves, NPS’ carbon footprint is commendably light.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

October 23, 2021, 12:44 PM AEDT