Inergy Automotive Systems began 2005 blow molding fuel tanks for the auto industry in 17 different countries on five continents.
By the end of this year, it will add another three countries to the list, responding to a market that is calling for as much investment in geographic expansion as in new technology.
``When we look at five years down the road, Asia will become our biggest market - ahead of North America, ahead of Europe,'' said Pierre Lecocq, Inergy's chief executive officer, during a March 4 presentation at ITB Group Ltd.'s Automotive Fuel Systems conference in Dearborn.
``And when we talk about continental Asia, we should add in Eastern Europe for us and Russia. India is growing rapidly and also Iran — all those countries will pull our industry into a totally different geographic footprint. This is our world, and we have to adjust to it. This is shaping our future, even beyond technology, and technology is very important.''
The Paris-based company is moving into China this year with its acquisition of 55 percent of China's Yangzhou Yapp Auto Plastics Parts Co. Ltd., a leading supplier of the country's fuel systems.
Inergy is fine-tuning plans to expand into Turkey this year, along with plans for a third site it has not yet disclosed. The company did not provide details about those locations.
Inergy's global growth is astounding considering that it makes a product that did not even exist until the 1980s, Lecocq pointed out.
Since their introduction in Europe, multilayer plastic tanks have taken over 95 percent of the auto market there. In North America, manufacturers have continued to ramp up production even as stricter emission-control standards hit California, requiring design and manufacturing changes for the tanks.
``The [emissions] development has demonstrated the ability of our industry - not just in our company - through technology to rise to the challenges,'' Lecocq said. ``How many people thought that plastic could rise that rapidly to the challenge? In fact, many investors thought that they would bring back steel, that plastic would not be able to meet this challenge.''
Inergy launched its own tank program last year, capable of meeting California's standards for a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, and has won three contracts for the system so far.
Now, even as it secures its capabilities to meet new standards in the United States, its growth takes it to regions with new issues to consider.
``Asia today is very fragmented,'' he said. ``There are very high plastic [tank] rates in [South] Korea, China and Thailand, but very little in Japan.''
China's acceptance is a natural outgrowth of its recent growth spurt in auto production, which began under the influence of European carmakers moving into the country through a series of joint ventures in the 1990s, Lecocq said.
Automakers like Volkswagen AG wanted suppliers capable of providing the same components available in Europe, so as future Inergy partner Yapp began making tanks, it launched the same style of multilayer blow molded tanks already in production elsewhere. Last year, tank makers based in China turned out 1.8 million plastic tanks.
Even Japan, with its tradition of steel tanks, is taking a new look at plastic. Inergy has two manufacturing plants open there now, and is seeing new sales opportunities.
``They are shifting to plastic,'' he said.
That global growth still intersects with technology, Lecocq pointed out. Each country using blow molded tanks has its own fuel standards and requirements, meaning each system Inergy and its competitors turn out must be able to adapt to a range of gasoline blends, driving conditions and pollution standards.
For Europe, where diesel-fuel cars make up about half of the auto sales, Inergy is introducing new tanks that integrate filters for diesel fuel into the complete system.
``We should position ourselves in a way that we can go to the engineer and say, `You build whatever engine you want, and we'll handle it,' '' he said.