SHANGHAI — Brückner Maschinenbau GmbH & Co. KB sees a slowdown in demand in China for commodity film production machinery, but it's not concerned. For one, it makes a full slate of equipment to produce specialty films, which took center stage at its Chinaplas 2014 booth. For another, such demand dips are just part of the normal cycle, according to Markus Gschwandtner, sales director of the Siegsdorf, Germany-based firm.
In an April 26 interview, Gschwandtner said he anticipates the market for commodity film lines will remain soft for the next two years or so, but then rebound, as always seems to be the case. In the meantime, Brückner is well placed to serve the growing demand for equipment to make higher-end films, such as optical grades, battery separator films and thin-gauge products.
Political factors and related trends — such as the push toward less raw material usage and the adoption of renewable energy in the form of photovoltaic panels or electric vehicles — are helping to drive the growth in some newer markets.
“Several Chinese customers have ordered multiple lines,” Gschwandtner said, while declining to provide further details. The Chinese economy, with its 7.4 percent growth, is still fine, he said. “But financing of deals takes longer now, so one needs patience.”
Brückner marketing manager Christian Aigner said global demand for biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) films is currently growing at a 6.2 percent clip annually, while biaxially oriented PET (BOPET) films are growing 6.8 percent per year. In China, demand for those products exceeds 15 percent per year, he said.
Aigner sees strong growth potential for BOPET in solar and photovoltaic panel applications. The material already is used in back sheets, to protect the panels from ultraviolet radiation, and he expects the front sheet of glass eventually will be replaced by BOPET, thereby making such panels flexible. But further market testing is needed and it may take some five years or so before that transition occurs.
Separator films are used in various lithium-ion battery products. The highest quality film is needed for use in electric vehicle batteries, followed by stationary power storage applications (to help eliminate power fluctuations), and also by what Gschwandtner called “the 3Cs” — consumer, computer and communication (i.e., cell phones, laptops, etc.).
At Chinaplas Brückner was promoting its patented Evapore semi-dry process, which involves extruding a film containing a “plasticizer” that evaporates out of the extruded film while still in the oven where it is made. That eliminates the need for heating the film to create the porous structure required, which the company claims can help lower production costs by 33 percent.
Brückner, which now employs more than 200 at its China headquarters facility in Suzhou, also was touting machines for producing thin-gauge BOPP films for use in such applications as capacitors for hybrid cars. And Aigner mentioned that innovation continues in the area of optical films, as well. The seven or eight layers now used in LCD panels for cell phones and big-screen televisions are very costly. While the base film is expected to remain PET, he sees new coatings being developed that will allow for the elimination of some of those film layers.
Finally, Gschwandtner noted that the North American market “is coming back.” But he also said that Asian film producers are making in-roads into the continent, and that North American processors have been slow to react to the competition.
• India's Uflex Ltd. in late 2011 opened a PET film plant in Elizabethtown, Ky.
• Japan's Mitsubishi Polyester Film Inc. performed a $20 million upgrade in late 2011 to the plant on its 193-acre site in Greer, S.C..
• Bangkok-based Polyplex (Thailand) Public Co. Ltd., operating as Polyplex USA LLC, launched production in April 2013 of thin PET film (both plain and metallized) at a new plant in Decatur, Ala.
• China's Shanxi Guorui Investment Ltd. invested $70 million into a 50-acre site in Gray Court, S.C., in fall 2011. The resulting firm, called Uniscite Inc., says on its website that, using a pair of Bruckner BOPP lines, it will have approximate annual production capacity of 70,000 metric tons (154 million pounds), and five-layer coextrusion capability. The first line is due to start up in July, with the second line being installed later in 2014.
Gschwandtner also said that the announced plans by electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. to build a $2 billion U.S. car battery plant, dubbed the “Gigafactory,” will drive demand for battery separator film there. Tesla plans to launch that plant in 2017. It has said it will be capable of supplying lithium-ion packs for 500,000 vehicles a year by 2020. By 2020, that plant is projected to produce more lithium-ion batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013.