Divining the future entails risk beyond what the average business encounters. While the bulk of this special report deals with history, discussions with industry leaders have yielded glimpses into what may come for the plastics industry during the next 100 years.
A huge intersection of technologies will create new opportunities for the plastics industry in the next century, said Erik Peterson, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Key areas of technological advances should involve computation, information technology, genomics/biotechnology and nanotechnology, with crossover of the various disciplines.
``We are likely to see changes in material science, especially with nanotechnology,'' Peterson said. ``Any established area like plastics can stay with or ahead of the curve.''
He characterized the composite airframe for the Boeing 787 aircraft and the ``monster'' Airbus A380 airliner as mere glimpses of the coming era.
``Plastics is going to be a critical component going forward in a complicated technology and economic environment,'' he said.
Peterson said global population might stabilize in the 2070s at about 9.3 billion. The current figure is more than 6.6 billion. He forecast that India at, 1.5 billion, would surpass China, at 1.45 billion, by the middle of this century.
Population stabilization may mean the anticipated drain on resources will not be as significant as thought, Peterson said. At the same time, the likely transition from a fossil-fuel world to a post-fossil-fuel world ``could be a huge constraint looking forward.''
Economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China should grow with astonishing speed, and activity in Turkey, South Africa and Argentina also would make large gains, he said. The results: a shift in the global balance of economic production, more export-driven economic strategies and greater educational opportunities in evolving countries.
Peterson acknowledged it is tremendously complicated to look 100 years ahead and cited the maxim: He who lives by a crystal ball ends up eating ground glass.
China moves to fore
``China will be the leading plastics conversion equipment supplier,'' said Jack Avery, principal of Avery Plastics Consulting in Salt Lake City. Avery predicted Hong Kong-based Chen Hsong Group and Ningbo Haitian Group Co. Ltd. of Ningbo, China, will be the world's leading machine suppliers with full lines of equipment.
Established machine suppliers will form partnerships and joint ventures to supply machines in the Asia-Pacific region, and equipment suppliers there will gain technology and manufacturing expertise, he said.
Chinese machine suppliers may develop more sophisticated plastics processing equipment and establish regional sales, support and service networks to open global markets to their products. That activity will create more pressure on European, North American and Japanese machine suppliers and drive consolidations, Avery said.
Material manufacturers and suppliers in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions will get new supply base and production roles.
Avery predicted China will lead the commercialization of nanomaterials; its government will fund academic and industrial developments.
Bioresins ``will develop a broad performance range, from neat resins for packaging applications to engineering grades for higher performance applications,'' he said.
For successful original equipment manufacturers, the role of design will grow and become integrated with the entire supply chain, he said.
``Productivity will play a critical role and those companies that integrate new product development and commercialization will be the market leaders,'' Avery said. ``To be cost effective, product design must incorporate materials in the most efficient manner'' and consider aesthetics, mechanical performance and recycling requirements.
Efficient processing of multiple materials is critical, he said.
``Currently in the global market, less than 5 percent of the plastic processing capability is multimaterial.''
Europe leads with North America increasing capability and Asia at a beginning stage. ``Multimaterial processing plus in-mold assembly in a manufacturing cell will be the manufacturing process of choice by 2050,'' Avery said.
Avery retired in 2004 after 34 years with GE Plastics.
Technology is a key
``For people to continue to be competitive, the only way to do it is through technology,'' said Stephen Petrakis, president of process cooling equipment supplier Frigel North America Inc. of Lake Zurich, Ill.
Businesses have to find better ways to provide service - faster, stronger and with good price - and the only way is through technology superior to the old ways, Petrakis said.
Firms in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy, have led many developments, he said. ``They spend tremendous amounts of money on research and development'' and pursue ``what is the next best thing rather than trying to copy what someone else is doing.''
A few large equipment makers and plastics processors will introduce cutting-edge technology in 40, 50 or 60 years, Petrakis said. Perhaps five mega-corporations on the equipment side and others on the processing side might dominate the landscape.
The practice of providing customers with value-added services will increase, and smaller firms will encounter tough market conditions, he added.
For companies comfortable with a single factory and a single address, Petrakis said, ``it is becoming harder and harder to compete.''
On the environment, Petrakis said the U.S. government is just starting to catch up with other governments around the world. The plastics industry, including his former employer, the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., is working proactively and educating environmental groups, regulators and legislators on what the industry is doing. Too often, wasteful human behavior is the culprit, he said.
``If you take plastics out of daily life, imagine what would happen in [hospital] operating rooms,'' Petrakis said.
Petrakis joined the North American unit of Frigel Firenze SpA of Scandicci, Italy, in December after previously directing SPI's Midwest and Northeast operations.
Best is yet to come
The bullish Vince Witherup wishes he were entering the plastics industry today rather than when he did four decades ago.
``It is just beginning, and the whole thing is so exciting,'' said Witherup, vice president of business development with auxiliary equipment maker Conair Group Inc. in Pittsburgh. ``I see the technology side of this thing exploding.''
The concept of a truly global industry becomes more prevalent as time goes on, he said.
Witherup said he is watching ``the human creative juices begin to work,'' noting how Boeing's 787 airplane would have passengers ``scooting around the world in a bunch of plastics.''
He envisions ``ultrahigh-tech'' products, including more voice-recognition devices.
Manual labor may diminish. Operators in low-labor-cost countries want state-of-the-art high-tech equipment to reduce or eliminate requirements for labor.
He said, ``A customer told me, `Labor is almost free here. Even if it is free, I cannot afford it. I cannot allow for human error.' ''
Auxiliary equipment makers will move into more niches, Witherup said. Of Conair's six major competitors, most are in one or two niches now.
Plastics processors will specialize and focus on niches. ``There is always room for little guys,'' he said. ``We won't have one or two processors.''
According to Witherup, some domestic work that went to low-cost locales is coming back to the United States. ``It happens more than we know,'' he said.
More foreign customers express interest in the total cost of a machine, rather than the low upfront cost of a foreign-built unit, he said. ``They are accepting a higher price for lower overall operating costs,'' Witherup said.
``The U.S. is a huge marketplace. It will be a long time before the Chinese have the [U.S.] sales and service networks they need.''
Witherup is a member of SPI's NPE 2009 executive committee and a past chairman of the event.