The world of thermoplastic elastomers is going through some pretty major changes.
The shift to Asia is the single most important factor affecting TPEs in the current environment, market analyst Bob Eller said at TPE Topcon, an industry event organized by the Society of Plastics Engineers, held Sept. 14-15 in Akron.
But Eller did not stop there.
Some TPE markets are approaching maturity in Western markets, he added. They're seeing commodity-like pricing and reduced customization, and that's opening up the market for smaller companies and making a significant price challenge to established TPEs.
We're also seeing a split into commodity and specialty TPEs. That means there are opportunities for custom TPE compounders who are willing to tailor grades. Targeting higher-value applications like air-bag doors.
Eller's comments may not have been welcome news to North American TPE makers, who have long described their products as value-added specialty materials, residing far from the commodity realm.
On a more positive note, Eller owner of Robert Eller Associates Inc. in Akron also pointed out numerous growth opportunities for TPEs around the world. Vehicles in China, for example, use only 4.4 pounds of thermoplastic vulcanizate per vehicle, while India checks in even lower at 3.3 pounds. The global average is 5.7 pounds. New markets for TPVs and other types of TPEs include weatherstripping, hoses and belts and elastic fibers and films.
We've seen the introduction of higher-performance [thermoplastic polyurethanes], Eller said. And an expanded range of [styrenic block copolymer] chemistry, with process technology allows for hard/soft combinations and foam/solid configurations.
Moving forward, Eller said that new Asian TPE compounders may have an advatange over Western competitors, even if Western firms already have valuable automotive approvals. Automotive continues to hold a 35-40 percent share of the TPE market. U.S, automotive demand for TPEs is improving, but other regions of the world now have more growth prospects, he explained.
Western companies need to go into Asia with specialties, not with a broad product line, Eller said. The global TPE life-cycle curve is changing in shape. It's a substantially higher curve that's more diverse, and with a higher number of compounders competing.