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Polymers that make music

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

This new musical instrument leverages the performance of Solvay’s specialty polymers

Meet Artiphon, a music technology startup that specializes in creating new kinds of instruments that just about anyone can play. Its latest product, Orba, is a teacup-sized half-sphere designed to let you approach music creation in a completely new way. Rather than striking keys or strumming strings, players are invited to touch, graze, shake, and rotate the little hand-held device any way they please, while creating full-fledged compositions thanks to its looping capabilities. More than that, this little device provides the perfect opportunity for a powerful polyarylamide to showcase a pitch-perfect performance…


It’s all in the touch

To enable all the different ways of interacting with the instrument, its creators needed a material that combined various properties:

  • Strength, so that it would resist wear and tear (better than both traditional musical instruments and fragile digital devices),
  • Stiffness, so that its parts could be precisely designed and extremely thin, and
  • A smooth, organic feel, so that it’s pleasant to hold and makes you want to play.

“We wanted to design an instrument with radical accessibility,” says Artiphon’s founder and CEO Mike Butera. “Something solid, not precious, that a kid can use and throw around, that’s always ready and responds to the player’s touch.” When the company started looking for a material that filled all these criteria, its mechanical engineer (who had experience with high-performance materials in aerospace applications) found the perfect fit in Solvay’s Ixef® PARA.

No material we found offers this balance of rigidity, ergonomics and solidity. Working with Ixef® PARA allowed us to imagine parts we couldn’t have otherwise created.

Dr. Mike Butera, Founder & CEO, Artiphon

Ixef® PARA is a polyarylamide, a high-end specialty polymer renowned for its combination of strength and aesthetics, which it owes to its glass fiber reinforcement and its resin-rich glossy surface. As this is a material generally used for metal replacement in the automotive, electronics, consumer and healthcare industries, being contacted by a startup that makes musical instruments was a first for the teams at Solvay’s Specialty Polymers business unit. “It was a pleasant surprise,” confirms Judith Bernabe, Key Account Manager. “When we started working together, there was a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm from my team, as this was a novel application for us. The Solvay team gave their full support to the engineers at Artiphon, from molded articles that were sent out for initial approvals to CAE and design recommendations.”

Design freedom & high expectations

Orba Jared

For its first creation in the early 2010s, the aptly named INSTRUMENT 1, Artiphon used standard injection molding plastic. For Orba, they had even more ambitious criteria, including a capacitive sensor stack beneath the touch surface. “We learned that musicians expect a really high degree of precision and resistance, so we wanted a rigid material that felt natural at the same time,” explains Mike. “We wanted to continue enjoying the benefits of injection molding while pushing the material to its limits.”

Using Ixef® PARA enabled unparalleled design freedom. The most striking result is simplicity: with only two visible parts, Orba’s streamlined appearance was part of the plan from the start. What’s more, its super thin walls are capable of letting through the smallest signal for the high-sensitivity sensors the instrument contains (they can measure velocity before the player’s finger even touches the surface). “There’s something different about this material,” continues Mike. “Nothing we found has this balance of rigidity, ergonomics and solidity. Working with Ixef® PARA allowed us to imagine parts we couldn’t have otherwise.”

Orba launched on Kickstarter late 2019 and broke the world crowdfunding record for musical instruments with over 12,000 backers. Manufacturing swiftly ensued and shipping began during the summer of 2020, just a few months after Artiphon’s initial contacts with Solvay. “Working with them was very demanding due to really short timelines,” says Judith. “We had to scramble to answer their demands as quickly as possible, but it was great working with such a dynamic and knowledgeable team. We learned a lot as well.”

Tens of thousands of Orbas have shipped so far, and Artiphon is happy to report that users love the new instrument. In fact, “people are growing attached to it like they are to their smartphone”, adds Mike. “And I’d like to credit the material for part of that success.”

Watch Introducing Orba by Artiphon – An instrument designed for your hands on YouTube.