Markus Eckert, SVP head of business unit urethane systems at Lanxess at Lanxess, explained that his company’s customers are mid-sized companies with specialised applications. ‘This is not an industry which is, from my perspective, heavily polluting or heavy energy using or water resource consuming,’ he said. ‘The impact on our customers has been small compared to other sectors. In those sectors, companies are being shut down from one day to the next because they do not have a wastewater treatment plant, for example.’
He added that Lanxess customers in China make parts and adhesives that neither use much energy nor create much pollution; so the effect of environmental enforcement on them is limited.
‘I don’t say it is zero,’ he said. ‘There are also companies which are affected because they are part of an area which is being closed down. They are in the wrong place.’
Within and without
However, Eckert added, the problem is not just air pollution. ‘The working environment, closed rooms and also interiors are all considered the environment in China,’ he said. ‘Any kind of solvent or free monomer is being watched much more closely than in the past.’
There has been a real push with government regulations to reduce the VOC levels. ‘This is pushing to the industry to use solvent release agents with higher flash point or water and hybrid release agents,’ according to Josep Maria Pelach, commercial and marketing director, Productos Concentrol.
Lanxess, Covestro’s Baule business and Concentrol are all producing materials designed to help the nation meet its air quality goals. For example, Pelach said that Concentrol has opened a technology company in Wuxi, 150 km from Shanghai, to give technical service to Chinese and other Asian customers. ‘For many years, the Chinese market was focused on solvent-based release agents. Now water-based release agents are becoming more relevant,’ he said.
It is not just release-agents where water is making inroads as China’s environment drive takes effect. Eckert said that in the world of polyurethane dispersion in China, there is significant growth, citing a number of reasons.
‘It is more environmentally friendly [than solvent-based products],’ he said. ‘Because of this trend, these products are growing over-proportionally in all kinds of leather and textile coatings and flexible surface coating businesses.’
He believes that Lanxess can capitalise on that in China. ‘First, we have the PUDs and that knowledge; secondly, we have the leather business,’ he said. ‘We have more technical expertise and service here. This develops the business growth and volume. We would like to do more in the future and build on the capabilities we have in Lanxess.’
Elsewhere in the world of CASE, Eckert said that customers are showing increased interest in its Low-free products with very low free content of diisocyanates. ‘They also value that we produce locally in Nantong,’ he said. ‘When it comes to the increasing regulation with a focus on environmentally friendly products, we can leverage developments from Europe and North America in China and support our customers.’
Covestro Elastomers makes both machinery and raw materials for the CASE segment. Its president, Thomas Braig, said: ‘Changing environmental standards and the need for safe handling inside factories are in line with our latest developments. Our low exposure oven helps a great deal.’
On the materials side, he explained that the company can offer alternative systems, such as its Desmodur MDI-based products.
‘This range of materials can produce products with the same properties and processing characteristics as products made with TDI and MbOCA,’ Braig said.
‘It can also simplify materials requirements at processors since they only need to keep track of three to four products, instead of more than 10 with TDI-MbOCA systems to cover the same range of hardness.’
Covestro was using PU China to promote its Desmopan TPU + Desmodur Cast Pu composite solution and Desmodur MDQ75 system. These are designed to exceed high performance rubber in mining applications.
He added that the final product is still competitive against rubber because conversion costs are lower. ‘This is because productivity is higher and energy consumption is lower than with rubber parts,’ he said. ‘Our high-performance oven enables processors to pre-heat materials twice as fast as conventional ovens without extra energy consumption.’
Eckert from Lanxess claimed that raw material prices were an issue at the lower end of the polyurethane elastomers market. ‘Customers have a choice depending on the rubber price and the polyurethane systems price,’ he said. ‘There were times when the raw materials were cheaper, and it was easier to compete at the lower end. But this is not our business focus.’
One way to measure the optimism of a nation’s polyurethane industry than by asking a machinery company about the market.
Wong Lee Meng, managing director of Cannon Far East, said, ‘With five more months to run in the financial year we are on line,’ he said. ‘We had a couple of good projects now, and if we strike hard we can reach more than last year.
‘In general, refrigerators are still very strong, with 50 plants this year and a number of single machines sole is higher than last year. The growth of automotive in China is this year is still positive, but the growth is lower than last year. Our seating carousel plant is full to the end of the year.’