For the plastics industry, two key trends worth watching in composites emerged from the JEC Asia show in Singapore:
* Asia's composites industry, including plastics, will outpace growth in North America and Europe.
* A big focus globally on using more thermoplastics in composites.
Asia's composites industry is projected to grow to 43 percent of global production by 2015, up from 38 percent in 2010, and account for more than 50 percent of demand.
Asia, however, still focuses on lower-value applications like pipes or storage tanks made with glass fiber, rather than higher-value, higher-tech applications with carbon fiber, like airplane body parts.
As a result, the industry there currently accounts for only about 31 percent of the global composites industry gross domestic product of US$97 billion, according to the Paris-based JEC Group, which claims to be the world's largest composites organization. It sponsored the JEC Asia show and conference, held June 26-28.
Thermoplastics will be an increasingly important part of the composites sector, accounting for about 35 percent of industry volumes globally now, with growing interest by automakers to meet lightweight and recyclability goals, said Frederic Reux, media director for JEC, in a presentation at the show.
“The automotive industry is really, really interested in thermoplastic [composites],” he said, although he added that composites makers should work on improving the efficiencies of manufacturing with thermoplastics.
“There is a big, big challenge for us to penetrate the automotive industry,” he said.
German press maker Schuler SMG GmbH & Co. KG, for example, told the conference about developments using high-pressure resin-transfer molding to make high-volume (40,000 units a year) carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic parts for electric car bodies.
And another exhibitor at the show, NV Bekaert SA's steel cord unit in Zwevegem, Belgium, was there to see if the Asian market was interested in its new process to injection mold thermoplastics with steel cord fabric to make auto parts. It developed that technology with BASF SE of Ludwigshafen, Germany, and Dutch molder Voestalpine Plastics Solutions.
Asia's auto market has major growth potential — the United States has more than 800 cars per 1,000 people and European countries have between 500 and 600, but by comparison China and India have only 50 and 20 cars per 1,000 people, respectively, Reux said.
JEC said Asia's composites industry growth is being led by sizable volume increases in China and India, but industries in those countries have big challenges.
In addition to much-discussed labor costs rising up to 30 percent a year, Chinese firms also struggle from a lack of innovation and as a result engage in fierce price wars, said Yang Zuo, deputy director of Beijing-based China Composites Group Co. Ltd., in a presentation on Chinese market trends at the show.
“Where is the profit? We think this is a suicide behavior for the companies,” he told the conference, adding that “Chinese companies lack innovation capacity.”
“It's a long-term problem.”
India, like China, is seeing strong composites industry growth, with production rising 10-11 percent a year, pushed by infrastructure, GDP growth and the need for renewable energy, said Appar Nattar Selvam, executive secretary of FRP Institute in Chennai, India.
India, for example, ranks No. 5 in the world in installed capacity for wind power, a key market for composites materials, he said.
But its companies still predominantly use manual processes, and the country has no domestic capability for making key equipment like resin-transfer molding machines, he said. Also, its domestic composite materials makers are smaller in scale and must import styrene, and as a result prices are high, he said.
Asia's composites industry in general is much less automated than counterparts in North America and Europe, JEC said, although some Asian countries such as Japan have highly automated production.
It said about 64 percent of Asia's production processes are automated, up from 31 percent in 2000, but still much less than the 85 percent automation levels it estimates for Europe or the United States.
Southeast Asia's emerging composites sector is looking at marrying its substantial agricultural production with composite materials.
“We feel there is a significant potential for biocomposites for driving Malaysian composites,” said Mohd Yusoff Sulaiman, president and CEO of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology, a government technology development group in Cyberjaya, Malaysia. “Our research is still in its infancy.”
Malaysia's domestic composites industry is growing about 10 percent a year, and involves about 120 companies, including one supplying composite components to aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus, he said.
He noted that Malaysia, a country with about 27 million people, plans to spend at least US$20 billion on upgrades of rail networks, including high-speed train links to Singapore, another market for composites.
It's also attracted research work from European aircraft and military hardware maker EADS and Rolls Royce to use biomass for chemicals and jet fuel, and believes it could be a hub for regional composites development, he said. It has a base of fabricators but needs more upstream production like raw materials, he said.
“We feel Malaysia has a strong chance to become the regional hub for the composites industry,” he said.
Japan's composites industry is looking for solid growth this year because of reconstruction following the country's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power crisis last year, reversing what had been several years of declining production, said Yuuki Maki, president of Banpo Industries Ltd. in Sakai City.
“After the earthquake I felt great joy that GFRP and CFRP production could make a contribution, in housing, in construction, in transportation,” he said.
Maki, who is also a director of the Tokyo-based Japan Reinforced Plastics Society, gave a presentation on the Japanese market at the show.
In addition to more well-known Japanese innovations like lightweight composites in new-generation cars, Maki also talked about the using fire-retardant plastic composites to make transparent roofs in Japanese factories and offices to save energy and improve the environment for workers.
He said Japanese composites companies must look to other firms in Asia to take advantage of the growth there.
“The Asian economic territory is poised to soon become the world's biggest economic territory,” he said. “We in Japan should look to Asia … [and] take this as an opportunity to break through Japan's current climate of pessimism.”
While many eyes in the industry — like Maki's — focus on the potential in Asia, its per capita consumption of composites still lags well behind more-developed markets.
The United States uses about 17.6 pounds of composites a year per person, JEC said, while China uses only 2.2 to 4.4 pounds, and India, only 0.57 pounds.