The boom in high-speed rail and urban subway systems in Asia is spurring interest among plastics firms hoping to capitalize on the massive building projects.
Governments are clearly investing significant sums: China is building a nationwide network of bullet trains, Taiwan opened its own high-speed system in recent years and cities across the continent from Suzhou to New Delhi are expanding subways and urban rail.
That growth prompted one of the industry's shows, the Railway Interiors Expo, to relocate its 2010 edition to Hong Kong, in November, where it attracted European and Japanese plastics suppliers like Bayer and Teijin Ltd.
Beyond the Asian growth, though, there's another trend potentially at work for plastics suppliers the growing need for the rail industry to lightweight their vehicles, like the automobile and aerospace manufacturers before it.
Global train car maker Bombardier Inc., for example, sees significant opportunities for plastics to help save energy and cut down on vibration and noise in the new generation of trains.
In the Western world, in Europe, we used to build tanks on wheels, said Luc Roy, engineering director for the company's China joint venture, Bombardier Sifang (Qingdao) Transportation Ltd., in Qingdao, China. Bombardier is based in Montreal.
Now, due to energy, anything we can save will start to be important whether it's insulation or panels or polycarbonate windows, said Roy, in an interview at the Railway Interiors Expo, held Nov. 16-18 in Hong Kong.
He said the railway industry has traditionally been very conservative with material choices, outside of perhaps more daring Japanese train builders.
But he predicted more interest in new materials, and noted that when Bombardier's train engineers designed their new high-speed rail cars, they shared a lot of information with engineers in the company's aerospace division, who are widely using composites as metal replacements.
The amount of energy we're basically using in a high-speed train, it's like an airplane, Roy said, suggesting why weight savings was becoming more important.
Rail is a relatively new market for resin supplier Bayer, with a lot of potential upside, but it remains unclear if plastics will get significant share, said Wim Van Eynde, the global project manager for mass transit and rail for Bayer Sheet Europe NV, in Tielt, Belgium.
It is difficult to judge how big the switch will be going from traditional materials to thermoplastics, he said. There is a growing interest in the rail market for saving weight [but] for the railway market using thermoplastics is relatively new.
Still, Van Eynde said Bayer came to the Hong Kong show because the focus of most of the investment in new rolling stock is in Asia, and really in China.
At its booth, the company displayed a seat from subway systems in India using Bayer polycarbonate, but he said the company has not yet had any breakthrough projects in China itself.
The world's major train car builders like Bombardier are big metals companies basically, but he said that if they switch to plastics it could be an interesting market.
Non-metals are growing in rail. A recent study from consulting firm Lucintel said composites such as glass fiber will continue to grow at double-digit rates in rail through 2015, the same pace as the last five years, with Europe maintaining robust growth and new demand in Asia providing significant opportunities.
Plastics still face some significant hurdles with cost and concerns about fire performance, though, according to several industrial design firms that specialize in mass-transit projects.
Historically thermoplastics have struggled to meet the spread of flame and toxicity requirements, said Paul Rutter, senior associate with DCA Design International Ltd. in Warwick, England, in an interview at the fair.
As well, polycarbonates and other plastics widely used in airplanes have proven too expensive for many train projects, said French industrial designer Stephane Pottier, whose Paris-based firm MBD Design specializes in mass transit.
I know the plastics used in airplanes are very good, very technical, fire resistant, very light, he said. We tried many times to use it in the train industry because its qualities are quite equivalent to what is needed but the problem is the cost. Trains have to be cheaper and cheaper.
He said he believed rail engineers remain more comfortable with metals.
Bayer's Van Eynde, however, said thermoplastics have made technical advances in fire protection recently and can compete: We now have materials which can reach the stringent fire classifications in the rail market.
The China market itself has given some of the European plastics suppliers at the fair a boost.
Nathan Cook, export manager for Birmingham, England-based Cable Management Products Ltd., said sales of the company's plastic pipe fittings have doubled in China this year, with significant sales in the domestic rail market for its twin-shot injection molded fittings.
The rail market is a significant target for the firm, and he said he spends significant time in China.
But, he noted, there are limits on how much foreign suppliers can bid for some contracts in China, if they don't have a local joint venture.
And he said the Chinese manufacturers are getting stronger: You have to compete with an increasingly competent domestic sector.
Among conversations at the fair, which attracted mostly overseas suppliers, the possibility of getting a share of the growth in places like China was tempered by questions about what will happen when China finishes its rail building binge, and its large domestic capacities turn more global.
All the Chinese companies are occupied full-time by providing for the interior market in China, but within five years time, the interior market will be satisfied, said MBD's Pottier, whose company has extensive experience designing rail cars in Asia, including a recent project on the world's first overnight sleeper cars for high-speed rail, to be used in China's bullet trains.
China will have huge factories that will need to go on manufacturing trains, so they will start to be very aggressive at export, he said. People like [train car makers] Alstom and Bombardier and Siemens should be very worried on the long term.