AKRON, OHIO (Sept. 17, 8:55 a.m. ET) — Thermoplastic elastomers are growing, thanks to the automotive recovery, new soft-touch packaging and as a PVC substitute in the health-care industry, according to Robert Eller, a market analyst.
Much of that growth is global — including increased use in the China, India and other developing nations.
But Eller said North America's TPE future is bright as well. He cited the rebound in automotive, which accounts for about half of all TPE consumption, plus new applications in medical and packaging. Reshoring also is bringing some work back from China, he said.
In automotive, TPEs will gain penetration in body glazing and seals, hose and exterior body side molding.
Eller said radiator hose is one promising application, which probably will require coextrusion. He called the hose segment “enormous, but quite challenging technically.”
“That's an area we've looked at for five or six years, and it looks like now it's just beginning to take off,” Eller said at the TPE TopCon, a conference organized by the Society of Plastics Engineers, held Sept. 10-12 in Akron.
Healthcare is the fastest-growing market, as TPEs replace PVC in blood bags and tubing.
In packaging, TPEs are coming to closures and labels. One high-profile example is a Bayer aspirin bottle with a cap a TPE cover for an easy-opening grip. “The soft touch phenomenon is extending into packaging,” Eller said.
The foaming of TPEs can create a high-flow of a relatively thin coating of the soft material.
Eller outlined the global economy and material science in his presentation that kicked off the conference. He owns Robert Eller Associates LLC of Akron.
“The industry is maturing. And with the maturity goes commoditization of some of the TPE grades,” he said. One example: Thermoplastic olefin (TPO) bumper fascia and styrenic block copolymers for footware. Some major material suppliers are de-emphasizing commodity TPEs, or exiting that price-sensitive segment altogether, he said.
Specialty TPEs, on the other hand, are targeted for specific applications such as health-care grades, new acrylic grades, bio-TPEs and what Eller terms “super TPVs,” described as thermoplastic vulcanizates “based on high-performance rubbers in a sea of engineering thermoplastics.”
With resistance to high temperatures and oil, super TPVs could win automotive under-hood applications, traditionally dominated by specialty rubbers.
Eller predicted new growth areas for SBCs, using a kind of cross-inking process to improve melt strength. That will allow SBCs to be processed using blow molding, film extrusion and calendering, profile and tubing extrusion and thermoforming.
“The challenge for the styrenic block copolymers is one major fact, which is that they have a very steep melt viscosity vs. temperature curve. You have the benefit of high flow. But the implications of it is, that you have low melt strength,” he said.
Eller also spelled out a hurdle to TPE growth in some traditional rubber parts.
“This issue with rubber is that much of that compounding is done in-house by the fabricators. In other words, they're able to control the complete supply chain, from basic raw material to fabricated part — for example, a body seal. And the rubber fabricators don't like to give that up,” he said. “That is a major barrier to the penetration of TPEs into several marketplaces that are high-volume products.”
In the 1970s TV show Welcome Back Kotter, Vinnie Barbarino's famous put down was “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” If they made a reunion episode today — and could convince John Travolta to play Barbarino, circa 2012, he would say: “Up your nose with a TPE hose.”