Chongqing, China — China lags in developing and manufacturing engineering plastics, but there's hope for the future, said Zhu Jin, president of the council of the China Engineering Plastics Industry Association.
Poor communications between the academy and industry, a focus on short-term investment return and still-iffy intellectual property protections have all put the Chinese industry behind the high-end plastics curve, Zhu said.
“The plastics industry in China is in danger,” Zhu said flatly. “We need to invest money for R&D to make high-quality plastics.”
Zhu gave Plastics News China an exclusive interview before the opening of the first-ever China International Engineering-Plastics Industrial Innovation Conference in Chongqing. The conference was sponsored by the China Plastic Processing Industry Association (CPPIA), the industry's flagship trade group.
Despite China's stature as one of the world's leading plastics manufacturers, the vast bulk of that product is commodity quality, Zhu said. There's a big lack of engineering plastics, which are used in demanding applications like high-speed trains, automotive engines and aerospace.
“Now, in China, we already have some good quality plastic, but it's made by foreign companies, like DuPont,” Zhu said.
Zhu contrasted the different R&D philosophies of China and America, where he did research for a dozen years.
“In America, R&D scientists get to be more creative than professors,” Zhu said. “Good people move to industry, because in industry they can earn more and have more freedom.”
In contrast, the most highly educated Chinese researchers stick to the better-paying universities and academic institutions, where emphasis too often is on publishing dry articles.
“[We] need application-driven research, not paper-driven research,” Zhu said, proudly pointing to his presidency of the Institute of Materials Technology at the Ningbo Institute of Industrial Technology. “If you don't have a [practical] target with your research, we won't allow it.”
Zhu estimates that 1,500 firms in China are researching engineering plastics — but many of these companies are started by salespeople, who aim for quick profits. “We invest today, but tomorrow, or one month later, we want new products.”
In contrast to Ph.D.-laden U.S. research firms, only about 6 percent of the staff in China's plastics research industry have a master's degree or higher, Zhu estimates.
Even big Chinese plastics companies spend less on research than their U.S. counterparts, Zhu said. Instead, they focus on reducing costs and hence prices. But this strategy must change, especially as lower-cost countries like Vietnam and Indonesia turn to commodity manufacturing.
“Here the venture capital is short-term … they don't like any risk,” Zhu said.
“I think the central government is ready to push a policy backing high-end research,” Zhu said, pointing out tightening of intellectual property protections. “So now the Chinese government realizes the IP is very important. …It's [improved] but it's still not as good as in America.”
Zhu's current research focuses on scaling up production of aromatic bioplastics, which offers greater rigidity and performance than traditional aliphatic bioplastics.
“In maybe five years we should have 10,000 tons [of annual production],” he forecasts.