According to several experts, the plastics industry may change during the next 20 years, but it will not disappear.
If you think globally, you see an obvious change, but I don't see any significant challenge, said John Beaumont, chair of the plastics engineering technology department at Penn State Erie's Behrend College in Erie, Pa. I don't see any magic material that will replace plastics.
But the industry's global manufacturing base is changing, noted Stephen Cheng, dean of the college of polymer science and engineering at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. We need to rewrite what polymers mean, he said. Polymers really have to be value-added materials. New polymers will come in areas like biomaterials, renewable energy, the environment and microelectronics, he said.
The key issue is new technology, Cheng said. To be new, it has to be done quickly and moved into production. Otherwise, the U.S. will have a problem. Cheng added that he expects the U.S. plastics industry to survive; the key is to get more high school students interested in science and engineering. Beaumont agreed: We need to be leaders in creativity.
That creativity will drive industry growth, the educators said. As analytical tools progress, the industry will evolve to meet more demands: Mechanical engineers, for example, will need broader experience, including global-operations and management skills.
There's always a place for the entrepreneur, said Terry Minnick, president of Molding Business Services of Florence, Mass. He said the plastics business, like any other, goes in cycles. I'm willing to bet that plastics in 20 years will look like it does now, Minnick said. The very idea that people think molding will die off that's ridiculous.
Natural changes are painful, but it is part of a process. [The process] has a tendency to turn around, Minnick said. In the end, the plastics business will be robust.