By Steve Toloken, Plastics News Staff
Shanghai, China -- China's rapidly expanding auto market seems poised to increase its plastics use quickly, shortening the gap with more-mature markets like North America and Europe.
For example, by some rough estimates Chinese-built cars use just 20 percent of the engineering plastics used in vehicles in those markets. But material suppliers interviewed at the Auto Shanghai 2011 show said they expect that gap to close, and fast, based on strong interest shown by model developers in China.
"We see a very quick adoption," probably within three years, said Patrick Ferronato, automotive director for Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont Performance Polymers.
Jeffrey Helms, global automotive director for Florence, Kentucky-based Ticona Engineering Polymers, said a typical Chinese-made car, for example, uses only 15-20 percent of the volume of Ticona engineering plastics used in vehicles designed and produced in North America or Europe.
China's fast growth -- a 30 percent increase in overall vehicle sales to more than 18 million units in 2010 -- combined with rising interest in polymers, means the Chinese market for engineering plastics could soon be the same size as the US market, even if the US per-car figure remains higher for some time, Helms said.
"I'm thinking in four to five years they should be on par, in terms of their absolute volume, to the American market," he said, citing industry statistics that engineering plastics growth in China is still about three times gross domestic product growth.
Bayer MaterialScience AG of Leverkusen, Germany, also is strengthening ties with local carmakers. It announced 8 April that it is forming joint laboratories with carmaker Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. in Wuhu, China, to research plastics including polyurethanes, polycarbonates and battery materials, and lightweighting cars.
Some industry officials, however, said Chinese carmakers are still more focused on basic quality issues than the kinds of lightweighting applications that might drive plastics use, in most cases.
"I think they are more focused on making a good car rather than a light car," said Richard Chung, vice president of industrial design in the Shanghai office of US automotive supplier Johnson Controls Inc. JCI's automotive operations are based in Plymouth, Michigan.
"But if they are focused on electric vehicles, and in many cases, Chinese companies are … then in that case they are focused on demanding lighter materials," he said.
Probably the biggest factor holding back the use of plastics, the materials experts said, are weaker engineering skills among local carmakers and unfamiliarity with plastics applications.
Those problems prompted DuPont to open an automotive centre at its China research and development site in Shanghai, to facilitate the adoption of high-grade plastics in China's auto market. DuPont officials said the centre has design services, along with materials-development, prototyping and testing facilities.
The engineering teams of Chinese carmakers tend to be weaker than those at global firms because both China's car companies and its engineering staffs are young, according to David Xie, vice president of engineering and design at Chinese carmaker Chery Automobile.
As well, China's fragmented car industry makes it harder for local firms to do much of their own development, he said.
Xie made those comments during a recent industry conference in Shanghai sponsored by Automotive News China, a publication of Detroit-based Crain Communications Inc., which also owns Plastics News.
Chinese-built versions of global car models can weigh up to 30 percent more than other versions, said Ticona's Helms. Like Xie, Helms said China's engineers are young. He added that Chinese-developed cars probably use more metal because the engineering staffs are just beginning to mature and are more cautious in part design.
He said the 30 percent figure is a Chinese industry estimate, not a Ticona figure.
As a result, there's a lot of work being done in government-funded research groups in China to lightweight cars. Ticona is being considered for some of that work, he said.
Lightweight electric vehicles are a major priority for the Chinese government as it seeks to develop transportation systems not so dependent on oil, said Sven Augustin from the automotive industry team of engineering plastics maker Evonik Industries AG of Essen, Germany.
"China does not have oil in its own country, they have coal, and they have to get the emissions out of their mega-cities," Augustin said in an interview at Evonik's booth at the show.
Evonik in October formed a team in China for designing lightweight automotive applications for the local market - its second such team globally, mirroring one it set up in 2008 at its German headquarters, he said.
Plastics can play a major role, but more work has to be done to make parts from those lightweight materials less expensive, Augustin said.
In Germany, for example, those parts should be 80 percent cheaper, he said.
Whoever develops new technologies to accomplish that will have a "huge market," he said.