Automotive plastics a promising market for Mecaplast Group

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Don't tell Pierre Boulet the automotive plastics sector is a mature market. He knows it's changing rapidly and offers plenty of opportunities for companies with the right strategy.

Mature markets grow slowly and innovate at a snail's pace. Automotive plastics used to be mature. From the 1980s to 2000s, plastics innovations were slow to actually appear in new models. Automakers were more focused on finding ways to cut costs than in actually taking advantage of the design and lightweighting opportunities made possible by plastics.

Now that's changed. I don't think the automotive plastics market in 2027 or 2037 is going to look anything like it does today.

But I won't be surprised if Boulet's company, Mecaplast Group, is still a leader in the automotive plastics sector for decades to come.

Plastics News recently gave Boulet, the CEO of Clamart, France-based Mecaplast, our inaugural Automotive Newsmaker of the Year award. He came to our Plastics in Automotive conference in Detroit to accept the trophy and share his take on the current state of the industry, and the direction it's headed in the future.

Mecaplast was founded in 1955 and made its first plastics part in 1965. It claims credit for the world's first plastic cam cover in 1988, and more recently the first plastic heat exchanger in 2017.

Converting metal components to plastics is in the company's DNA, Boulet said.

Mecaplast is a global supplier. It has manufacturing plants — and skills/technical centers — on five continents. Current annual sales are about $1.2 billion, with 10,000 employees at 50 locations in 20 countries.

The company estimates it uses 66,000 metric tons of plastics every year.

In the past year, Mecaplast has achieved organic growth in lower-cost countries including Slovakia, Mexico, Portugal and Romania, plus new partnerships in Japan and China.

The biggest headline of all came in October, when Mecaplast announced plans to buy Livonia, Mich.-based Key Plastics LLC for $415 million. The same month it opened its second manufacturing plant in Mexico, a brand-new, $10 million facility, built to its specifications in Silao.

Those are pretty big bets on the North American automotive plastics sector, a market that other suppliers have been slower to invest in since the Great Recession.

Keep in mind there's some uncertainty in North America, with a new administration in Washington that may try to shift where vehicles are assembled, and tap the brakes on fuel efficiency goals.

Boulet said Mecaplast's strategy has been to prepare for continued profitable growth.

"We are trying to be proactive. We have our own innovation plan. In three years, we have filed more than 30 patents. We have a hundred ideas that we have built in running cars; we have now two prototypes where our innovations are built in," he said.

Boulet highlighted a few, including stampable composites that cut more than 40 percent of the weight compared to the metal parts they replace, and heat exchangers made with thermally conductive polymers, cutting 10 percent compared to aluminum.

"We are also reactive when customers are requesting something, and we have innovation programs with some of our customers," Boulet said.

He predicted this for the future: "There will be more and more plastic, more and more function in the future. There's no doubt about that in my mind," he said. "There will be more weight-savings solutions, and there will be a lot of new devices that we don't even know today."

With innovations like self-driving cars on the horizon, the potential for automotive plastics has rarely looked better.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "the Plastics Blog." Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.