The thermoplastic elastomer market may be growing up, but competition from inside and outside the market hasn't changed. In fact, it's probably more intense now than it was even five years ago.
``Many standard TPE makers have reached parity in manufacturing,'' industry analyst Howard Blum said at TPE Topcon 2005, held Sept. 11-13 in Akron. ``Now there's more emphasis on technology and marketing.''
Blum, who is chemicals director for Kline & Co., a consulting firm in Little Falls, N.J., added that TPE demand should grow at a rate of more than 5 percent for the next several years. Global demand in 2004 was estimated at about 4.2 billion pounds, with 45 percent in styrenic block copolymers and 35 percent in thermoplastic olefins and thermoplastic vulcanizates.
``TPEs have evolved as a value-added strategy for polymers,'' Blum said. ``The value chain is driven by where technology is applied.''
Robert Eller, president of Akron consulting firm Robert Eller & Associates, detailed some of the challenges facing the TPE field as it looks to grow its presence.
Eller still sees major opportunities for TPEs to make inroads vs. thermoset rubber, a battle TPEs have been fighting for more than 20 years.
Within the TPE field itself, Eller said SBCs and TPVs are being challenged by PVC and plastomers in low-end applications, and by thermoplastic polyurethanes in high-end uses.
``PVC has done a better job of defending itself than originally thought,'' he said.
New families of ``super TPVs'' based on acrylate, nitrile and silicone also have increased competition by offering better handling of under-the-hood temperatures and emission control in auto parts. Companies making those materials include Dow Corning Corp., Zeon Chemicals LP, DuPont Co. and Freudenberg-NOK GP.
Further muddying the mix are SBC-based TPVs, which can improve heat and chemical resistance and compression set. TPEs using nanocomposite technology also are being introduced, although Eller said there's some debate over whether clay or talc is a more suitable filler.
Nano-TPVs can offer improved scratch and mar resistance and are looking to penetrate bumper fascias, he said.
Another change in the North American TPE market is the automotive market's claiming of an even larger chunk of business. Eller said that is happening because many nonautomotive uses - including footwear and consumer goods - have moved to Asia.
The TPE market also could be helped by improved twin-screw compounding technology for better dispersion, Eller added.
Moving forward, Blum said half of TPE growth will come from rubber replacement, with the other half coming from new product designs. He also stressed the importance of the Asian market, which now virtually has tied North America, with each region accounting for 35-38 percent of world TPE demand.
``Asian development is in such an early stage that [TPE makers] have an opportunity to create new channels to market,'' Blum said. The Asian market ``hasn't solidified like in North America.''
``You can establish it in ways you define and not in the way that the rest of the world defines it,'' he said.