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China's car industry sees gains, hurdles to using more plastic

By: Rebecca Kanthor
PLASTICS NEWS CORRESPONDENT

November 29, 2013

SHANGHAI ‒ China's car industry is working more seriously on developing its own technology on lightweighting, replacing metal parts with plastics, but many hurdles remain like poor communication in the supply chain holding back innovation, according to participants at the China International Auto Lightweight Plastics and Innovative Materials Development Forum, held Nov. 19-21 in Shanghai.

One the positive side, the Chinese car industry supply chain is getting more involved in the issue, observers said.

"One thing I am seeing is more Chinese involvement," said Jean-Claude Steinmetz, chairman of the Auto Plastic and Innovative Materials Committee of the Sino-European Union Chemical Manufacturers Association, a Shanghai trade group which organized the forum. "Now you have Chinese companies coming saying we are now at the point where we can drive weight reduction ourselves moving forward. That's a big change."

He and other participants heard three days of presentations by foreign and domestic companies of their successes and challenges in lightweighting.

Randal Chen, business development manager of acrylic polymers, Asia Pacific, for Evonik Industries, who presented a plastic glazing technology for use on car windows, said that the importance of lightweighting is something that the industry takes seriously.

But even so, participants and the audience in a panel discussion on Chinese auto lightweighting developments were clearly troubled by the quality of communication between the different players and how this is affecting innovation and the speed of development.

Jerry Wang, general manager of the Ningbo, China factory of Taiwanese injection press maker Fu Chun Shin Machinery Manufacturing, said that the forum is one of the few opportunities for industry members to share requirements and technology innovation.

He said that he had come to see what the car industry and its suppliers were working on so that he could make sure his machinery was up to speed.

A participant from Yanfeng Visteon, Zha Yiwen, department manager of the advanced engineering technical center, reiterated that he sees the lack of communication between original equipment manufacturers and car manufacturers as an issue.

"We want to focus on what the client is interested in so that our research and development will be quickly accepted by them," he told Plastics News in a later interview. "It's not just sharing what we are doing and planning on doing, it's also about getting feedback."

Participants also highlighted the need to deepen the level of communications at the forum itself.

Huang Zhi-Jie, general manager of engineering plastics compounder Zhejiang Juner New Materials Inc. and APIMC executive director, said that while the forum was better than previous ones, there was room to improve.

"We should have more specific topics to discuss," he said. "We need to be deeper."

The conference included a speech from Cao Du, an executive at Chinese car maker Chang'an Automobile Group Co. Ltd., that faulted the different parts of the industry for not working closely enough together on lightweighting topics in China.

Cao, who is executive chairman of the International Green Auto Lightweight Technology Alliance, said that the topic needs more focus from government planners as well. The alliance is also part of the APIMC.

But still, Cao, Steinmetz and others said the Chinese industry was embracing lightweighting more than in the past.

At a previous forum, APIMC's Steinmetz had told Plastics News he worried about a lack of passion among Chinese participants, but he said the participants at this forum were quite engaged, and it was less driven by global companies.

"You see if you look around you see less Caucasian faces around. I think that is quite a positive," he said, referring to the make-up of the panelists leading discussions during the forum. "Now you have local competition coming up and they have learned."

"I'm quite happy to see that change because that's really what we wanted at the beginning – more sustainability to develop a better environment," said Steinmetz, formerly vice president of automotive at French materials supplier Rhodia SA and since August, the chief operating officer of Australian rare earth mining company Lynas Corp. Ltd.