Consumption of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) will show steady growth during the next five years as the market reaches maturity.
That is the verdict of a report ‘The Future of Thermoplastic Elastomers to 2020' published by consultants Smither Pira.
It predicts global demand will rise at a year-on-year rate of 5.5% during the next five years, reaching 5.5 million tonnes in 2020.
The report's authors say the broad picture is that while consumption of TPEs is still healthy, expansion in demand for these materials is now slowing down, following rapid market penetration.
This throttling back is a sign that TPE is becoming a mature market with a global sales base. As this happens, existing material sets whose market TPEs have encroached upon are being re-engineered to be more competitive.
Within those segments that are now consuming them there is a small but positive shift from commodity TPEs to those with higher performance, due to more exacting operating requirements. This is particularly true in the automotive sector, although the delivery of these new TPE types will take time to reach the automotive market.
Simultaneously companies are investigating cutting-edge production technologies, and investigating with biomass-sourced TPEs and the development of smart rubbers using a TPE-base.
Commodity TPEs currently represent 77% of the world market. Within this segment styrene block copolymer-based (SBC) TPEs occupy first place, accounting for around a third of global consumption – a market share that will decline only marginally in the next five years.
In contrast, demand for thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers (TPE-Os) will witness a slight increase, as the plastomer reactor grades become more accepted in the global marketplace and displace EPDM rubber based grades. Demand for thermoplastic vulcanisates (TPE-Vs) will also increase through to the end of the decade.
Thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPE-Us) will suffer a decline, due to reduced demand from moulding applications; although this will be largely compensated for by higher volumes sold for use in hot melt adhesives.
Copolyester elastomers (TPE-Es) will be the fastest growing TPE grade across the Smithers study period. This is due to its superior heat resistance and chemical resistance helping to increase its use in automotive applications.
Besides their inherent performance differences, the other key driver for the differing fortunes of all TPE grades will be shifts in the end-use markets that buy products made from them.
The automotive industry and related sectors – like rail and aerospace – account for the largest end-use application for TPEs. This is around 43% of global demand in 2016, and will enjoy an above average annual growth rate through to the end of the decade.
The main evolution in this market will be the drive for high performance TPEs with heat and chemical resisting properties. This is being prompted by vehicle designers making models with higher under the bonnet temperatures, which place a correspondingly higher strain on components of air induction systems that are made from TPEs. Across the segment this will lead a trend away from commodity TPEs towards high-performance TPEs, and in some instances manufacturers may even revert to vulcanised elastomers – although price is also an important consideration for auto manufacturers.
A major breakthrough in the last few years has been the choice of TPEs as replacements for PVC for both supported and unsupported automotive foils, usually referred to as vehicle skins. This is occurring because the former are more environmentally friendly, in that:
• they are lighter weight, cutting lifetime fuel consumption
• are easier to recycle when a car is scrapped
• release few volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during production.
Replacing PVC – this time in moulded window frames – is also a key spur for TPE use in the building and construction segments. Other applications include seals, gaskets, pond and reservoir liners, and highly resilient roofing materials.
This is the second largest end-use application, but one that Smithers forecasts will see below-average expansion between now and 2020.
New applications for TPEs that are developing most rapidly in this decade are in two smaller segments – medical and hygiene products, and electrical cable and wiring.
While in the past TPEs were considered to be replacements for other thermoplastics, they are now established in their own right as being fully competent to fulfil the necessary functions demanded in medical and healthcare equipment. Use in products as varied as surgical masks, blood bags, medicine containers and equipment seals translates into a year-on-year increase of 9.1% up to 2020.
This will see medical consumption of TPEs reach 445,600 tonnes in 2020, more than double demand in 2010. It will make this the third largest end-use segment for these elastomers, while it was only the fifth in 2010.
The main advantages of TPEs in healthcare are better performance compared to existing PVC lines and the fact their non-reactive nature means they easily meet tough compliance requirements for medical devices.
In most wire and cable applications the development of zero-halogen, low-smoke flame-retardant systems has now placed TPEs in a competitive position with PVCs. This is seeing them progressively gain share in medium- and low-voltage cable jacketing insulation.
Plastomers are now being advanced as viable replacements for PVC as well; due to their superior heat and chemical resistance and advantages in recycling at end-of-life – which is a growing concern with the promulgation of legislation like the European Union's WEEE Directive.