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After the successful year of 2004, the 2005 upswing for fibre-reinforced plastics as well as engineering thermosets came to a temporary halt. This year, however, appears to continue the upward trend.
This is the conclusion of the market analysis performed by the AVK Industrievereinigung Verstärkte Kunststoffe e.V. (Federation of Reinforced Plastics) regarding the production of GRP as well as engineering thermosets in Europe. On 19 September, Managing Director Dr. Uwe Bültjer presented the corresponding results to the press.
In 2005, the European GRP industry realised only a limited growth of 2.2 %, which was a considerable setback compared to the previous year’s growth rate (3 %). This was attributed partly to the decline in automotive production and the continuous building slump, partly to the dramatic development of the oil price. For the first time after many years, the steady upward trend observed in SMC production gave way to zero growth. In the first quarter of 2005, this sector experienced a heavy setback compared to the previous year, which, admittedly, had been a very good year. Although the production volume picked up somewhat during the second quarter, another downtrend was observed during the third quarter. This was primarily due to the declining lorry production and the sluggish demand for passenger cars.
Demand for BMC throughout the automotive industry has suffered again. This may be attributed, first of all, to the stagnating passenger car production, and secondly to the increasing use of cold-light headlamps that eliminate the need for heat-resistant reflectors – once a primary area of application for BMC. In the second largest BMC market, the electrical industry, home appliances are heading the list of factors putting a stop to further growth. This is due to the slump of the private as well as the public building sector, where the volume has been decreasing for years.
The largest GRP volumes in Europe are still produced by open hand lay-up and spray lay-up processes. Primary areas of application include the building and construction sector, shipbuilding, as well as a number of specialised markets involving the low-volume production of parts with large surface areas. The further expanding market for wind power stations and the continuing boom for recreational boats in particular were responsible for the stagnating growth in this sector. The bad news, however, came from the building trade again. Not only large-sized GRP parts such as covers for sewage plants were involved, but also items for private households, such as bathtubs and shower trays. Considering these circumstances, it might be said that the resulting zero growth might even be considered somewhat of a success.
The market for RTM parts, on the other hand, has expanded substantially. Closed processes are still supplanting open processes, albeit less drastically than before. Production of recreational boats and components for wind power stations by the RTM process has established itself.
Despite the disappointing development throughout the building trade, corrugated sheets as well as planar sheets experienced a very nice recovery. The production of planar sheets, once one of the less important areas within this group, has increased to the point where its contribution to the uptrend was above average. This may be attributed to the increased utilisation of GRP sheets for the external planking of recreational vehicles and lorry superstructures.
The excellent growth rates with regard to wound-up and centrifugally cast pipes continued in 2005, especially among pipes targeted for waste-water management. Both of these production processes have contributed to an almost equal extent.
The market for pultruded GRP profiles picked up once more in 2005, only to return to the level of 2003 despite the 5 % production increase. Apart from the positive development in bridgebuilding, significant increases were realised in the railway sector as well as for cable ducts and hollow sections. As usual, glass fibre-reinforced thermoplastics (GMT/LFT) once more attained above-average growth rates. In the meantime, they have conquered a significant position in the automotive industry; irrespective of the increase in oil prices and other problems bothering this industry, they are gaining popularity almost exclusively in this sector. Growth rates, as in previous years, were assured by LFT alone. In recent years, carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CRP) experienced a considerable upswing. The fibre capacity, which has reached as much as 7 500 t/a, was once more unable to meet the demand in 2005. In Europe, CRP are used almost exclusively by the aviation industry. Special-purpose products like a carbon fibre SMC, which won AVK’s Industrial Award, offer good chances of successfully introducing CRP to the automotive industry as well.
Natural fibre-reinforced plastics attracted increased attention in 2005, since fibre prices, which are independent of the oil market, remained largely stable. The automotive industry in particular tested the suitability of natural fibres as reinforcing materials for components where the high material stability provided by glass fibres is superfluous. The spare wheel pan of the DaimlerChrysler A Class was the first exterior automotive component based on a natural fibre-reinforced polypropylene to enter series production.
More progress is to be reported in the area of wood fibre-reinforced polypropylene (WPC), which, over time, has gained a market position as so-called “extrudable wood“. So far, this product has been used exclusively outside the automotive industry, for instance as floor slabs for patios.
Bültjer is encouraging. “In the course of this year“, he says, “GRP production in Europe will revert to the growth rates of previous years and is expected to regain 3 % in economic growth.“ In his opinion, SMC and the open processes in particular showed a substantial increase, and even the BMC market is in for a turnaround, thanks to the regained strength of the construction industry. As far as pipelines are concerned, it is especially pipe reconstruction that makes for a steady growth in this opinion. In addition, however, GRP production for world-scale plants is booming, due to the large number of power stations to be renovated and the numerous refuse incineration plants to be newly built.
Additional areas of GRP application in the automotive sector were guaranteed especially by the creation of the “Green Label“ recycling system. In France, the collection and utilisation of used GRP parts as well as production waste is already well established throughout the country. In Germany, things are proceeding and are expected to reach French standards in 2007.
Last year’s upswing among thermoset moulding compounds continued through the first two quarters of 2005, but then declined, as a large percentage of the production went into storage. Annual production volumes once more regained 2003 levels, corresponding to a 2.3% decrease as compared to 2004. The demand for standard phenolic materials suffered, first of all, from the ongoing building slump. Secondly, the market for brake linings stagnated due to the reduced mileage of automobiles. Urea moulding compounds, too, were affected by the downward trend in production. Adding to these problems was the continuing substitution by thermoplastics.
Special-purpose moulding compounds, on the other hand, are continuing to gain importance. This is particularly true of moulding compounds with a high glass content. Production volumes in this sector reached approximately 17 000 t last year and are expected to increase further in 2006. The automotive industry estimates the annual growth rate to be between 4 and 5%.
Bültjer is convinced that standard moulding compounds, too, will take a turn for the better in 2006, considering the renewed activity throughout the construction industry; besides, the automotive industry is discovering the advantages of thermoset materials and is using them to an increasing extent.
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