Fairlawn, Ohio — The global thermoplastic elastomer market is "at a change point" in 2018, with the supply chain shifting from Asia and Europe to North America, according to industry consultant Robert Eller.
"We're seeing a reverse flow of globalization," Eller said Sept. 19 at TPE Topcon, an industry conference hosted by the Society of Plastics Engineers in Fairlawn. "Companies like Black & Decker are finding good TPE compounders in China and other parts of Asia, and then those compounders are setting up operations in North America."
Eller, president of Robert Eller Associates LLC in Akron, Ohio, added that recent tariff disputes between the U.S. and China "will further encourage" Asian TPE compounders to start producing their materials in the U.S.
He cited Chinese compounders Kingfa Science & Technology and Polymax Elastomer Technology Co. Ltd. as Asian firms that have added U.S. production in recent years. Kingfa now has operations in Canton Township, Mich., while Polymax has a production site in Waukegan, Ill.
In spite of this move toward North America, Eller said that the Asia Pacific region still accounts for half of global TPE demand. The region continues to have a production cost advantage, Eller said, although recent overcapacity has led to lower prices and some commodity-like behavior.
He added that although the global TPE market is maturing, there are still opportunities for advances in automotive and other key markets.
"A car is basically becoming a box of electronics with devices that connect with other cars," Eller said. "That's making opportunities for smart functions for TPEs."
Autonomous vehicles are "creating a path for smart TPEs" to be used in signaling, lighting, sensing and on "smart surfaces," according to Eller. And although the TPE market often has used "dumb filler," the said there are now opportunities for TPE makers to tailor fillers at nano-scale.
TPEs also are being used more in auto window encapsulations, where olefinic TPEs are competing with PVC and polyurethane. Another impressive recent development, according to Eller, was Kraton's use of its SEBS-type styrenic block copolymers in an injection molded soft skin for auto applications.
Looking ahead, Eller said that he believes that inter-TPE competition will continue and that commoditizing will continue to drive prices down. TPE makers "have to figure out how to get out of the commodity track," he added.
Specialty TPEs will continue to gain market share, especially in areas where there's synergy between TPEs and engineering thermoplastics, Eller said, adding that smart TPEs "will allow TPEs to enter a higher-margin space."