Change is inevitable, but what trends or innovations are likely to affect how the plastics industry does business in the next decade?
That question was posed recently in telephone interviews with a sampling of plastics processors, tool builders, material suppliers, equipment manufacturers and industry consultants.
Here are some of their predictions:
Plastics will take an increasingly larger share of the U.S. economy.
That's the view of Michael Paslawskyj, vice president for economic research with CIT Group in Livingston, N.J.
Tremendous opportunities exist for corrosion-resistant plastic to ``get rid of wood or iron or steel,'' he said.
Expanding applications, new alloys and new ways to blend things will help convert ``inventions into useful articles,'' said H. Lee Noble, president of Bayer Corp.'s polymers division in Pittsburgh.
He noted, for example, that the binding of polymers with ``everything from sawdust to shavings of weed trees can make attractive pieces of wood'' without the need to cut old-growth trees.
Original equipment manufacturers will outsource more parts processing.
``I can see where an OEM will specify performance and shape and design and have the product manufacturer run with it,'' said Jack Avery, manager of operational assets for GE Plastics in Pittsfield, Mass. ``It's an extension of how automotive does it today.''
Global linkage will create more OEM demands for processors to locate nearby.
Together and independently, polymer processors and contract manufacturers often commit resources to follow OEMs to low-cost final assembly sites.
When OEMs need to force costs even lower, however, the vendor lacking a written agreement or a secondary business base may find factory closure as the only option. Restraint has saved some processors, but OEM pressures will continue drawing those willing to invest nearby.
``Outsourcing and globalization are tied together,'' said Joe Bergen, president and chief executive officer of Sajar Plastics Inc. in Middlefield, Ohio. ``We are a small molder, about $20 million, with terrific customers, and we are playing in the middle of giants.''
Consolidations will include vertical ties but won't stop entrepreneurs.
``Company consolidation is off to the races,'' said Jim Meinert, director of international marketing for Snider Mold Co. Inc. in Mequon, Wis., noting that combinations of a prototype house, mold maker and molding shop will become common.
CIT's Paslawskyj knows there will ``always be mergers,'' but he does not expect fewer actual participants because plastics processing is not a difficult industry to get into.
``As long as material substitution continues, I don't see maturity'' for the industry, he said.
Customers will insist on shorter time-to-market cycles and agility.
Time-to-market issues are critical, said Robert Schwartz, executive director and chief operating officer of the Industrial Designers Society of America in Great Falls, Va.
``Companies are willing to spend to get to market faster,'' Schwartz said. Properly managed flexible midsized firms can survive.
``There is a place for companies like us if we do what is right,'' said John Witt, chief executive officer of custom sheet extruder Witt Plastics Inc. in Greenville, Ohio. ``It comes down to how responsive an organization is. Customers are getting more and more impatient.''
``Customers are looking much more for the solution,'' Meinert said. ``They want to go with a company that can give prototype tooling, bridge tooling, production tooling and parts.''
Process integration will boost multicomponent, soft-touch and value-added molding.
Multiple processes tied together with automation will increase to the point of manufacturing cells, GE's Avery said.
``Assembled, decorated multimaterial widgets will pop out of injection molds with minimal post-molding requirements,'' said Joseph McRoskey, chief executive officer of injection molder Co-Mack Technology Inc. of Vista, Calif. ``Value-added activity inside the molding press will gain acceptance and popularity.''
Large tooling helped consolidate parts in a Deere lawn mower from 153 down to three, Meinert said.
Midtier resin suppliers will fill a gap, while commodity houses get bigger.
Some commodity suppliers have yielded turf in low-volume specialties.
``There is a void for service and quality and opportunities for midtier people like [M.A.] Hanna and others,'' Sajar's Bergen said. ``There was a great dependency on resin makers for market development.''
Size still counts, though.
``Resin producers that remain intact will be those that practice best technologies at most competitive cost levels,'' said Howard Blum, vice president with the consulting firm Catalyst Group Inc. in Spring House, Pa. ``To sustain position, it will require companies to achieve large critical mass.''
More rapid-tooling technologies will emerge.
``Both lead times and costs will decline because of the development and implementation of fast-tooling techniques,'' McRoskey said.
Eventually, toolmakers may add steel or an advanced material to build a mold rather than take away steel, said Jerry Edquist, president of Carlson Tool & Manufacturing Corp., in Cedarburg, Wis.
A mold maker will need to be an expert on rapid-tooling technologies, said Glenn Starkey, president of mold-shop supplier Progressive Components Corp. in Wauconda, Ill.
``A mold maker able to satisfy heroic [OEM] delivery demands ends up being the mold builder that can survive,'' he said, adding that the necessary investment may result in ``fewer mold shops, but bigger mold-building companies.''
Meinert projects growth in blow molding with cheaper rapid tooling to make better structural parts for automotive interiors.
``Straight injection molding is more expensive,'' Meinert said.
Concerns about environmental issues will lead to more mandates.
``The absence of any crisis with the world's oil resources has taken the [environmental] issue off the agenda,'' IDSA's Schwartz said, ``but I see [the issue] as a sleeping giant.''
Bayer's Noble sees environmental criticism continuing but slacking off in time.
``We need to be alert, communicative [and use] basic science to be safe and avoid criticisms that come down the road,'' he said.
``Expect more corporate directives to `be green,''' said McRoskey. ``Recycled materials will find more mandated uses.''
Electronic commerce will change how the plastics industry conducts business.
Witt sees the Internet as a way to deliver extraordinary customer service.
A customer or vendor can electronically access shipping, inventory and product information through fire walls and a secure password.
Using polymers to manufacture Internet equipment — from computer cases and screens to compact discs and CD-ROMs — is becoming a big business, Noble said. ``I am convinced we won't have filing cabinets in a few years,'' he said.
Bergen said he is overwhelmed at the response to Sajar's Web site.
``What interests me is the electronic communication and the marketplace'' transferring images and files, he said. ``It will have a wave of successes. I don't think we have seen anything yet.''