AKRON, OHIO (June 21, 12:30 p.m. EDT) — What speculations about the plastics industry's next decade will come true, and what unanticipated changes are possible? Five years ago, for Plastics News' 10th anniversary, we asked a group of industry prognosticators including Jerry Edquist, Jim Meinert and Glenn Starkey for their views on what major trends were likely to affect the plastics industry in the next decade.
This year, for our 15th anniversary, we're going back to those three, plus eight other forward-looking officials — Robert Eller, Huston Keith, Bill McConnell, Peter Mooney, Scott Paulson, Brian Read, Kurt Swogger and Bill Wood. Here are some of their predictions:
Growth in product design will enhance the competitiveness of North America's plastic product makers.
Product design “becomes more important every year,” especially when the designer works through all of the manufacturing issues in advance of production, said Bill McConnell, president of McConnell Co., a Fort Worth, Texas, consulting firm that specializes in thermoforming.
“Product design and development will be paramount,” said Scott Paulson, president of Paulson Training Programs Inc. in Chester, Conn. North American market value going forward is not in reduced labor or utility costs, he said. “That economic cycle will take a generation to come around again. Instead, the value that the North American market can bring is in engineering expertise, product design and manufacturing turnkey solutions.”
Jim Meinert, president of tooling consulting firm Meinert Market Services LLC in Saukville, Wis., sees closer cooperation between domestic product designers, toolmakers and processors as the key to innovation and time-to-market improvements. “In the global arena, we need to add more value like Germany does,” Meinert said.
Amidst globalization, U.S. companies will export to China.
China and other developing countries will “make a colossal transition from producing a lot of stuff to consuming a lot of stuff,” said Jerry Edquist, president of Carlson Tool & Manufacturing Corp. in Cedarburg, Wis. “No one country in the world can make everything. There is a lot of pain along the way.”
“Within 5-10 years, if aggressive enough, we will be a net exporter” and run a trade surplus with China, said Peter Mooney, president of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C. “The demand for products in China will overwhelm” that country's production capacity.
“To a large extent, we have enough [capacity] to supply ourselves and our neighbors, and we don't need to sell to Asia,” Mooney said. “That attitude must change. In addition to selling domestically, we must be more aggressive in selling globally.” Europeans are global salesmen and, in the future, “we have to become global salesmen.”
In dealing with “the China manufacturing machine,” the U.S. plastics industry needs promptly to integrate “the entire chain from feedstocks to finished products,” said Kurt Swogger, vice president of research and development with Dow Chemical Co.'s plastics business in Freeport, Texas. The U.S. needs to achieve lower capital and conversion costs and innovation in intellectual-property-protected materials and fabricated parts.
“Leading U.S. companies will further enter into global markets,” said Glenn Starkey, president of Progressive Components Inc. in Wauconda, Ill. “There is a vulnerability to having all of one's products coming in a container from one country or one region.”
The “current velocity of manufacturing shifts” is likely to result in corrective “global tariff ramifications,” Starkey said. “U.S. companies who are inherently innovative and genuinely global will be able to benefit in what will be a more balanced worldwide manufacturing network.”
Environmental concerns will persist.
Processors and municipalities will make an effort to keep plastics out of landfills, and the emphasis will fall on polymers not derived from hydrocarbons, said Brian Read, president of structural foam molder Horizon Plastics Co. Ltd. in Cobourg, Ontario.
Cradle-to-grave designs will become a priority, durable materials and processes with longer lives will replace cheaper throwaway plastic parts and processes such as structural foam will find favor because of their ability to incorporate high percentages of recycled plastics. “The environmentally responsible companies will survive through all these changes,” Read said.
For the automotive industry, “if Europeans are serious about end-of-life legislation, it will encourage monomaterials,” said industry analyst Robert Eller, president of Robert Eller Associates Inc., from his office in Akron, Ohio. “Our parts will go that direction [and] probably be better technology.”
Paulson envisions a possible groundswell against some uses of plastics. “One can't underestimate the power of public outcry,” Paulson said. “The industry must do a better job of educating the public to plastics' benefits. With all due respect to the industry, there are some applications that are unnecessarily wasteful and environmentally suspect.”
McConnell thinks the plastics industry is reaching accommodations with environmental interests. “I don't see more changes making it any worse,” he said. “Our technology works around it and works to live with it.”
Process integration and collaboration will accelerate and lead to increased efficiency.
“Today's level of integration is the tip of the iceberg,” Paulson said. “Industry and segment leaders will have a full suite of tightly woven services. Expertise in design, material, manufacturing and final assembly will be the mantra of the leading global suppliers,” and “collaborative projects will be the norm” with the previous specialties of part design, mold making and molding becoming one continuous, engineered process.
Eller agreed. Domestic proc-essors need to consolidate secondary processes and intermediate steps to lower the price of a fully assembled part, he said. “There will be drastic changes in the supply chain, [and] simple little parts will be molded somewhere else because we cannot compete.” Advances in in-mold assembly and decoration and multishot molding will extend these technologies to large area parts.
McConnell foresees more pressure for consistency in raw materials, machinery and processes. Processors must align with suppliers to resolve impediments to consistency, he said. Increasingly, firms will need employees with technical skills and training to get consistent processes and keep them repeatable.
McConnell underscores the need to upgrade technology. “Every five years, 50 percent of the technology a company is using is obsolete,” he said. If not investing and staying current, “large organizations may get stagnated.”
A technology convergence within the automotive industry will harmonize materials and performance requirements through fewer global suppliers. Over time, Eller sees the U.S. auto industry overcoming its typical three-year lag on innovations coming from Europe and Japan.
In a move toward backward integration, processors will do direct inline compounding in their plants. “Buy the basic materials, put them into the compounding system and send them directly to the molding machine,” Eller said. “Take compounding out.”
Creative toolmakers will compete successfully.
Domestic mold makers will compete on automation, innovation and value-added capabilities to “solve customers' real problems” and anticipate future needs, said Carlson Tool's Edquist. The industry's reliance on craftsmanship has “less value now.”
There are “100 ways to do it,” said Edquist, who believes “very bright ingenious people” will find those ways to compete.
Meinert anticipates advanced production of domestic molds quicker than an Asian supplier can ship a mold to the U.S. by ship. Accurate and fast machines can finish a tool rather than requiring labor for hand polishing. “I see the additive processes and aluminum being used more for quick-to-market opportunities,” Meinert said.
In a related development, further integration of processing technologies will make it “more commonplace to find products injection molded, blow molded, stamped and cast under a single roof,” Progressive Components' Starkey said. More so than today, “toolmakers of the future will be well-versed in these various segments and be able to integrate in complete product design capabilities with full tooling supply and support. Although this is being provided to some degree now, it will be the norm for proper product development.”
Foam technology and flexible packaging show promise.
Eller anticipates “a tremendous spurt in foam technology” with end users paying less of a penalty for foaming agents. “In 10 years, we will look at the current foam technologies as primitive.” More microcellular foam breakthroughs and process controls open a range of new applications, and Trexel Inc.'s “MuCell [microcellular process] is an example.”
In another niche, “flexible plastic films will continue to take a growing share of the packaging market from rigid containers of all types — including plastic bottles — as well as from other flexible materials such as foils and paper,” said Keith, principal with Keymark Associates in Marietta, Ga.
Winners will include materials “able to economically eliminate secondary processes like laminating and coating or provide properties like dead fold and barrier, which are inherent to paper and foil, respectively.”
Globalization is rampant, and plastics processors need to prepare to link up with the large and expanding converter networks worldwide, Keith said.
Omnipotence of the Petroleum Age will fade.
A research economist deems it high time for the U.S. to phase out of the petroleum age, take domestic control of energy needs and get smarter about foreign involvement. Global and domestic economic obstacles exist, but “in every case, we need to manufacture ourselves out of these problems,” said Bill Wood, founder and principal of Mountaintop Economics and Research Inc. in Greenfield, Mass.
“The plastics role is critical,” Wood said.
The energy-conservation move toward lightweight recyclable plastics-intensive Smart cars in Europe is a trend the U.S. should emulate, Wood said. To control power consumption on peak-demand summer days, Wood suggests that everyone install rooftop photovoltaic sensors “to generate megawatts on those very days when we are about to spike the energy curve.”
Paring down oil consumption would leave plenty of feedstock materials for plastics processing for the foreseeable future and better recycling would push the time out further, Wood said. “We should never get to the point where petroleum becomes precious. In fact, we are paying far too much for it right now in hidden costs such as environmental degradation, geopolitical instability and the erosion of national sovereignty. I envision the day when the Middle East is paying us to get rid of the stuff for them.”
E-commerce and global requirements will drive change.
Typically a price suppressor, “e-commerce will march on,” but it is going to hurt little guys in general,” Eller said. “The big guys will scoop up the resins.”
While e-commerce is established in the resin segment, it is just starting in bidding for part production, Eller said. “The whole process gets depersonalized.”
In old or stable markets, “the manufacturing bleed-off will continue when measured in number of people employed in the industry,” Paulson said. “However, if the health of the industry is measured in productivity terms, the industry will be very competitive on a global scale.”