Chinese carmakers are stepping up their use of plastics, driven by their own improved engineering capabilities and their desire to improve performance and make their vehicles lighter.
Plastics News reporter and Asia bureau chief Steve Toloken sat down with Patrick Ferronato, automotive director for DuPont Performance Polymers, at the April 21 opening of DuPont's new automotive center in Shanghai, to talk about trends in plastics use in China's car industry. The auto center is located within DuPont's Shanghai research and development center.
Q: Chinese-made cars generally use a lot less engineering plastics than cars in more mature markets. Do you see that changing?
Ferronato: I think that basically your assessment is correct. The level of penetration of plastics in a typical Chinese car is lower. In the typical U.S. or European or Japanese car, you can see that 15-20 percent of the total weight is plastics. In a typical Chinese car we would see less, but for the general-purpose type of plastics, probably today it is not too far from this. What is of more interest to us is the engineering polymers side. There you can still see a large gap.
This center actually has been a big part of our growth in this part of the world. The Chinese are adopting this technology and learning very fast in a way leading us to constantly upgrade and improve our performance. I would be tempted to believe that it will come probably in the next one to three years. Three years from now I would be extremely surprised if the level of penetration in brand-new models would be really different from what we see in other parts of the world. At least from what we can see on the applications. So we see a very quick adoption.
Q: What are the factors that restrict the development of engineering plastics in China?
Ferronato: Most of the automotive OEMs are used to designing parts in metal. In order to have people more confident and trust more the capabilities of having polymers deliver good components, you need a level of education and knowledge of how you convert designs from metals to plastics. You need processing capabilities and design capabilities that are rather specific. That's why we put in place this technical center.
We had to somewhat work with the entire value chain, to be able to bring those plastics components to the automotive industry in China and make those plastic components adopted in the design. Now we are speaking mainly about the local Chinese companies. Obviously the foreign companies have been using plastic components more in their homelands, so what they needed was more to wait until their supplier base was installed in China. For the local Chinese OEM, it's more a question of having the process know-how. I would say at this point in time we could consider that it is more or less here.
Q: How does the automotive product-development cycle in China compare with other countries?
Ferronato: I would say from now on the product development for plastic components is actually slightly shorter in China than what we can see in other parts of the world. The know-how is there, people are confident and the market is growing so fast, that they have to do it faster.
Q: What are DuPont's relationships like with Chinese domestic automobile makers?
Ferronato: It is pretty clear [that] a few years back our main relationships were with the foreign brands or [joint ventures]. I think that definitely in the last five years we have developed capabilities and centers to work closer and closer with the domestic Chinese carmakers. That is why we can say their evolution and attitudes toward plastic components and engineering components have been changing a lot over the last couple of years. In the end, the marketplace will decide who the winners in the Chinese market are. Clearly we are serving the two groups of customers in an equal way, if you want to make it simple. We have a good relationship with the Chinese OEMs and their suppliers, because it's very important, and obviously the foreign companies establishing business with JVs, and their supply base. Going forward the marketplace will decide who the true winners are.
Q:What is your assessment of the current and potential Chinese market for electric vehicles, and the role of plastics in that?
Ferronato: There is one aspect of it, which is, what can we do around the powertrain side of it, what can we do around helping customers develop better energy storage. The elements that are more electrically related, insulation, new materials for a different type of current, plus at the heart of the system, separator film for the battery improving the efficiency of those systems.
Another important aspect will be the lightweighting of the vehicle, to increase the range. On this aspect we believe this center will play a great role because, as a direction which is given by the Chinese government, we tend to believe that maybe compared to other parts of the world, [China] will be a better driver for launching faster and adopting faster an electrical vehicle or variation of it. I think in a way it's very likely the Chinese market will play a kind of leading role, especially in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai.