As a major supplier to the automotive industry, German specialty chemicals company Lanxess AG is upbeat about the prospects of the automotive market despite a significant decline in demand, particularly in Europe, so far.
Axel Tuchlenski, head of global product and application development in the High Performance Materials business unit of Lanxess, told Plastics News Europe in an interview in late 2019 that the industry was "close to bottoming out" the downturn, adding that his company was "cautiously optimistic for the coming year."
Despite the subdued automotive market, Lanxess has continued with expansion plans, having recently increased production capacity for Tepex-branded continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastics (CFRT) by 50 percent in Germany, according to Tuchlenski.
On Oct. 18, and Greg Mulholland of Citrine Informatics, a U.S.-based artificial intelligence company, presented the two companies' groundbreaking technologies in the use of AI for developing customer-specific, high-performance plastics.
Q: Lanxess was substantially impacted by the recent automotive decline in the first half of 2019. How do you assess the market for Lanxess and the market developing in the short term?
Tuchlenski: The significant decline in demand from the automotive industry, particularly in Europe, naturally also left its mark on Lanxess.
However, we believe that we are close to bottoming out here. External factors such as the trade war between China and the United States, however, are difficult to assess in terms of their further impact.
If no further trade barriers are introduced, we expect demand to settle at the current level for the rest of the year. Further market development will depend on many factors, including local factors, which cannot be predicted in the current situation. In Europe, electric mobility will continue to gain momentum and demand will pick up again, while the further development of the diesel engine in Germany, for example, can hardly be estimated. Lanxess is cautiously optimistic for the coming year.
Q: What measures are Lanxess taking to mitigate the market pressure?
Tuchlenski: Lanxess' global positioning enables it to balance out regional imbalances to a certain extent.
This is being done in the current situation. In addition, we have been able to reduce excess orders from 2018 and are now back on the road with normal delivery times for all our compound products.
With regards to Tepex, due to the very positive introduction of CFRT worldwide in mass production products, this business area is currently booming.
Q: What highlights do you see coming from Lanxess?
Tuchlenski: Among other things, the High Performance Materials business unit will present new products and applications for electromobility. New materials include orange-colored, heat-stabilized and flame-retardant compounds for high-voltage applications and materials that can be used in applications that are particularly sensitive to electrocorrosion.
Other examples are halogen-free, flame-retardant materials for components such as cell holders or battery end plates.
When it comes to lightweight construction, Lanxess is concentrating on the new hollow-profile hybrid technology and the thermoplastic composites of the Tepex brand.
At K, we [exhibited] a high-strength seat shell and a Tepex front end carrier with integrated functions, both of which exhibit excellent crash resistance.
We also presented new compounds for the economical blow molding of, for example, air ducts for turbocharged internal combustion engines and liners for hydrogen and natural gas-powered vehicles. At our plastics technology center in Dormagen, Germany, we put a state-of-the-art blow molding facility into operation and established a global team that develops materials for special applications.
Also worth mentioning is the innovative BAGS (Bolster Active Grill Shutter) system, which is made of Durethan for the new Ford Focus. This was developed in close cooperation with OEM and Tier 1.
Q: Lanxess has been expanding its continuous-fiber reinforced technology over the past seven years. Can you please tell us more about the latest developments in this technology? Any expansion plans?
Tuchlenski: We have increased our Tepex manufacturing capacity by approximately 50 percent to meet the strong demand in the mass production of highly loadable components for light automobiles and consumer electronics. For the expansion from six to eight production lines, a new hall with an area of around 1,500 square meters was built. The investments amounted to a mid single-digit million amount.
We regard the establishment of the hybrid molding process with variothermal molds for the production of decorative components as a major milestone in the field of thermoplastic composites.
Following the introduction of the hybrid injection molding process for structural components, primarily in the automotive industry, this is the next evolutionary step in the use of Tepex, since in the sports and electronics industries, for example, the focus is not only on mechanical properties but also on the outstanding appearance of fiber composite components.
One example of Tepex's use for mass production are laptop housings of one of the world's three largest computer manufacturers. In this application, Tepex has substituted both thermoset and magnesium components with carbon fibers in six- to seven-digit quantities per month. In addition, Tepex meets the high requirements for flame retardance (UL94-V0) as well as high torsional and bending stiffness.
Tepex is also becoming increasingly established in the automotive industry in the mass production of lightweight structural components such as front ends and bumper beams, brake pedals and underbody panels. A more recent application example is two electrically adjustable individual rear seats for a variant of the Audi A8, whose seat shells are manufactured using the hybrid molding process from a nylon 6-based Tepex dynalite.
We are also continuing to work intensively on the development of standardized material parameters, particularly in the automotive sector. In this way, we can further advance the simulation of the entire CFRT process chain. Here we are now in a position to accompany the entire chain with simulation tools from component design to the process.
Q: Another area of focus for Lanxess has been compounding activities. How is the construction of the compounding plant in Krefeld and the expansion project in China coming along?
Tuchlenski: All expansion projects in the compound area are making good progress and are fully on schedule.
We expect to commission the plant in China in October. As things stand at present, capacity expansion in Germany will begin in mid-2020 with ramp up.
Q: Finally, does Lanxess have any expansion or greenfield projects in the pipeline? If yes, can you please elaborate?
Tuchlenski: At present, we have no further expansion plans in the compound area of engineering plastics apart from the capacity expansions in China and Germany already mentioned above. In the CRFT area, we have just completed the expansion of capacity as described above.