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David Hartmann and Michael Schmidt (right).
David Hartmann and Michael Schmidt (right).

David Hartmann, a New Zealander, and Michael Schmidt, a German, are co-CEOs of Covestro’s emerging continuous-fiber reinforced thermoplastics (CFRTP) business, which had a major presence on the German firm’s large exhibit at the recent CHINAPLAS show. Numerous examples of applications of CFRTP — from laptop covers and luggage, to shoe mid-soles and consumer electronics — were on display and served to illustrate the breadth of potential applications that exist for the rigid, lightweight, aesthetically pleasing and highly tunable, polycarbonate-based material.

Q: Covestro likes to describe itself as “a start-up with a 150-year history,” given the firm’s roots dating back to the beginnings of Bayer AG in the mid-19th century. How does an established company create the mindset to launch a brand new business like CFRTP?

Schmidt: We’re living in an era of fast-paced changes and disruptions. Companies will survive only if they adapt quickly and stay in tune with their customers’ changing needs. Covestro is no exception. When there’s a market demand for stronger and lighter products that are beyond the reach of today’s materials, launching a brand new business is a logical step to expand its portfolio for important industries and thereby strengthen its leading position. You can’t be an engineering plastics player in 2025 without a strong composites portfolio.

Q: Why create an unusual corporate structure for this fledgling business that has co-CEOs, with one (David) based in Shanghai and the other (Michael) based in Germany? Why base this business in China?

Hartmann: CFRTP as a startup business at Covestro needs faster decision-making, and there are a lot of assumptions and hypotheses that need to be tested out. Carving the business out and having us as the co-CEOs gives us the flexibility and agility we need.

CFRTPs providing strength, stability and durability for footwear midsoles. While co-CEOs in two countries may appear to be unusual, it’s actually very natural in our case because China and Germany are both important markets as we drive our business. Asia Pacific and China In particular gives us valuable insights into customer and industry needs, and we transfer those needs to Germany to fuel technology development, from production process to product and application development.

We are also executing a range of business development activities in North America to support global efforts, quickly identify and capture regional opportunities, and to develop relationships with supply chain partners in that very important market.

Q: Covestro likes to tout its approach as one focused on “Pushing Boundaries.” How does the CFRTP business push boundaries? How so – what’s new or different about it?

Hartmann: To understand how the CFRTP business pushes boundaries, we need to first understand how our material is pushing boundaries.

Many of today’s advanced materials have reached their limits – they cannot go thinner and lighter while keeping mechanical stiffness. CFRTP composites challenge this across industries, delivering a combination of light weight, specific strengths and finishes at a scale unreachable by advanced materials today.

For the CFRTP team, it means bringing a completely new class of material into existing and new markets, and challenging the traditional ways of doing things. That takes tremendous efforts and a whole lot of courage, not only on our part, but also for the customers and partners we work with.

Is the value chain ready? Not really. So we’re helping the industry to learn how to process our material. We’re comfortable with not knowing everything at the beginning and just testing things out. We believe in saying yes to challenges. We walk step by step alongside customers and build the trust to explore and take risks together. That’s what pushing boundaries means to us, and that’s what we live and breathe on a daily basis.

Q: It would seem that carbon-fiber-based composites are hampered by a perception of being expensive and cumbersome to process. Additionally, many product designers simply are not familiar with how to design for a material such as CFRTP’s polycarbonate-based, fiber-reinforced tapes and sheets. How are you overcoming those issues?

Shoe shank made of CFRTPs. Schmidt: Yes, traditionally composites have been known to be costly and often difficult to work with. CFRTP changes all of this, offering a modern, cost effective and easy-to-form thermoplastic composite material that opens the path to completely new applications and user experience. Existing thermoplastic injection molding production lines can be easily modified to use thermoplastic composite sheets, and back-molding technologies allow the introduction of hooks, bosses and other features.

Product designers may not be familiar with how to design for a composite material like CFRTP, but that’s changing too. We’re working with many designers in our current projects and it’s exciting to see how they are inspired by CFRTP to go on a new path in design. They can go lighter than before, stronger than before and with a totally new look. The intrinsic value of CFRTP to designers has been validated again and again and we’re very confident that more and more designers would want to work with CFRTP if they want to push boundaries in a whole range of applications.

Q: You refer to CFRTP composites as being “tunable” to meet customer needs. Give us an example or two.

Schmidt: Being unidirectional and providing strength in the lengthwise direction of the fibers, CFRTP allows us the basic capability to tune for particular mechanical requirements, and aesthetics, too. We can tune for specific strength and stiffness. We can customize fiber and resin combinations with different colors and surface treatment.
CFRTPs keep the main body of the luggage thin and light. The photo shows the luggage surface.
In footwear, for example, it’s exciting to see how easy it is to change the performance of the final parts, like midsoles, giving them a bamboo-like flexibility in one direction and steel-like stiffness in another, providing strength, stability and durability where they’re most needed.

Another example is luggage. While keeping the main body of the luggage thin and light, CFRTP tapes can be layered around the corners for local reinforcement. That means corners no longer have to be filed down, so that the product is still stable despite being very lightweight.

Q: CFRTP yields strong, lightweight, recyclable parts in short cycle times, with potential Class A surface finishes, processed at moderate temperatures. That’s all good. Where does this material still need to improve? What are the product’s current shortcomings, and what are your scientists focusing on now, to further improve the product?

Schmidt: We are working with partners to develop small-scale eco-systems that allow processing from tapes into final parts and all process steps are combined and modeled with an overarching Digital Industry 4.0 approach. This is quite unique and is guiding us into the future.

Q: When thinking of potential applications for such a material, consumer electronics and automotive come to mind. But CFRTP’s first big commercial launch – this past March –involved a large, “smart” air conditioner from China’s appliance giant Haier Group. Haier used CFRTP in the pair of 1.8-meter-tall housings for this sleek unit, known as the Casarte Tianxi. Why did Haier choose this material for this application? Is it looking at other uses for CFRTP?

Hartmann: As a composite material CFRTP’s lightweight and strong mechanical properties come naturally into play in applications such as consumer electronics and mobility. However, we believe its aesthetic value is equally, if not all the more important, especially when it comes to consumer goods. Consumers want to have high-quality, beautiful products that touch their lives and we’re excited that CFRTP has a powerful aesthetic and emotional value to answer that need.
Haier has launched a state-of-the-art air conditioner under its Casarte brand, which utilizes novel CFRTPs from Covestro.
In the case of Haier, what they were looking for was a premium material solution that has the same high-end aesthetics as metal but is easier to process and scale. We were told by designers from Haier that CFRTP is attractive to them because it has a natural, unidirectional surface pattern right from the start, unlike metals such as aluminum that require some combination of finishing processes like sandblasting, brushing and anodizing. For CFRTP, the finish is all natural and has a beauty to itself.

In fact, this was the first time Haier has been able to specify a high-performance composite material with unique aesthetics in their range of premium air conditioners. CFRTP lends the product a luxurious metallic effect with a totally new visual language for the material. On another sensory note it also produces the sound of metal rather than plastic when knocked.

Q: Meantime, at the recent CHINAPLAS show, Covestro was highlighting a number of other applications. Tell us about some of the products that are likely to come to market commercially soon, and what role CFRTP may play in them.

Hartmann: One of the powerful things we are doing is changing how materials can enhance consumer experience in the next generation products. When we look at the next generation of cars and personal computing devices they all need more powerful materials, and we’re supplying those materials to those industries.

As you already saw at CHINAPLAS, CFRTP goes into all kinds of products that touch every part of consumers’ lives. We’re working with luggage makers, footwear manufacturers, and top electronics brands, and the automotive industry also is excited by our products. The breadth of applications is enormous, and the way we can touch consumers’ lives is extensive. We’re confident that some of them will go to market soon, and CFRTP is the reason why they can be strong, light, and beautiful at the same time.

(Note: Covestro announced the brand name Maezio™ for its continuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites (CFRTP) in early Aughust, 2018)

Robert Grace is a freelance journalist based in Florida. He was the founding editor of Plastics News in 1989 and headed that weekly newspaper’s editorial operations for 25 years before establishing his own company, RC Grace LLC (www.rcgrace.com) in 2014.

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