Many markets hold promise for unified thermoset makers

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SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 1, 5 p.m. ET) — Thermoset plastics are in a good position to capitalize on new markets in the auto, aerospace, electronics and other industries, but to take full advantage of that position, producers must learn to work together, some industry leaders say.

“By combining, it can be bigger than the sum of its parts,” said Andrew Sanders, corporate marketing manager of Novi, Mich.-based Sumitomo Bakelite North America Inc., at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoset TopCon conference Jan. 25 in San Antonio. “We need to define what the markets are and approach and educate the people in those markets.”

Sanders led a discussion calling for members of the thermoset industry to join forces, much in the same way the steel and aluminum industries have worked together to get the word out about advancements in their materials.

“Steel is working very, very hard,” he said. “They’re in a position of strength, and they’re not going to let it go away. The [American Iron and Steel Institute] explores different methodology to keep the material fresh in the eyes of the industry.”

But the Aluminum Association has proved other materials can move into auto parts where steel once held a monopoly. Ninety percent of all engine blocks, for instance, are now aluminum.

The auto industry holds extensive potential for plastics, especially thermoset composites, as automakers try to reduce the weight of cars. Thermoset plastics are a proven option.

The Automotive Composites Consortium has worked on various projects to develop new technology that carmakers can then further develop for future products. Sumitomo Bakelite of Manchester, Conn., and Bulk Molding Compounds Inc. of West Chicago, Ill., have worked together to identify parts under the hood where their materials could go into future production.

“We can lateral the ball to each other,” said Len Nunnery, vice president of BMCI and chair-elect of the Thermoset Division. “There are benefits for both companies.”

There are developments in technology, such as software modeling for thermosets, which should benefit suppliers. Carbon-fiber composites have been winning new business in the auto and aerospace industry — especially with Boeing Co.’s new 787 Dreamliner — but there are also new opportunities in electronics as composites integrate electronic interference shielding.

Underwriters Laboratories Inc. is developing standards that will help thermosets win business in electric vehicles and “smart-grid” advanced electric transmission systems.

Companies should be able to work together to educate potential new customers about composites without violating anti-trust rules, Sanders said, and then compete for business once customers are ready to commit to production.

That may mean hiring lawyers to lay out ground rules for cooperation, Nunnery said, but he added, “If we found a way to increase our market space, that would be money well spent.”