Düsseldorf, Germany — Despite all the bad media plastics have received over the past two years, the materials are set to have a bright future, according to German distributor Biesterfeld AG.
Already a major contributor to lightweighting trends in key industries such as aerospace and automotive, engineered plastics will have a greater role to play as new mobility trends emerge, Carsten Harms, a member of the executive board at Biesterfeld AG and managing director for Biesterfeld Plastic & Performance Rubber, said at K 2019 in Düsseldorf.
"Look at the future. If you think about autonomous driving, safety, comfort and light weight will be the key features. And plastics address all those issues," Harms added.
Urbanization and new lifestyles also point to further growth for the plastics industry.
"Ski boots, skis, e-bikes and many other products are now made using plastics. There's a whole industry based on pure plastics," Harms said.
And when it comes to the automotive segment in particular — despite the market decline — new trends present "plenty of new opportunities."
The slowdown in the market, according to Dietmar Zinkand, business manager engineering polymers, impacted almost the entire plastics industry and has been registering a continuous downtrend since third-quarter 2018.
"The slowdown has picked up speed and when you compare quarter-on-quarter even, you can notice the change. But I think we have either bottomed out or are very close to it," Zinkand added.
But the market will not rebound as quickly as it did back in 2009 after the major economic crash of 2008, Zinkand said.
A broad range of factors contribute to the pessimistic outlooks, from a recent escalation between Turkey and Syria to ongoing trade conflicts between the U.S. and China, to the major shifts in mobility trends.
On this latter subject, Zinkand pointed to a somewhat hesitant approach of consumers toward the market.
"When people think about buying a car today, they are completely puzzled about what choice they should make: Should they buy petrol, diesel, hybrid or all-electric?" Zinkand said.
Some consumers choose to wait until the industry knows in which direction it is going.
"And to be honest, the industry doesn't know where it will end up. The automotive industry is in a multidirection state at the moment, and nobody knows where we will end up," Zinkand added.
Whether the future be all-electric cars, Zinkand has his doubts.
"Maybe in Europe, yes. But in places like the U.S., where you have hundreds of miles between towns or in China, or in Australia with its large deserts, I'm not sure. For electromobility, the most important thing is the infrastructure, which is not there," Zinkand said.
Biesterfeld officials are certain about one thing: the future of plastics.
"We will not be sitting back and watching the market, we will be actively driving it in cooperation with our suppliers, who are investing in new innovations and new grades," Harms said.
He said there are a lot of innovation campaigns going on within the industry right now to "create the future."
"When you have such shifts, you have the chance and the opportunity to drive innovation," Harms said.
Citing market research figures suggesting that plastics production will increase to 400 million metric tons per year by 2030, from the current 180 million tonnes, the distributor is upbeat about the future.
"This is predominantly driven by commoditized products but also engineered polymers. I think in general, plastics are allowing for innovation and this is what makes their future bright," Harms said.