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Keywords of this article:  Engineering Plastic 
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Engineering plastics have become one of the important indicators to highlight the industrial development level of a country.
Engineering plastics have become one of the important indicators to highlight the industrial development level of a country.

Since individual resins feature performance limitations and users impose increasingly higher requirements on materials of low cost, high and diversified performances, this has given birth to a full range of modified engineering plastics. This paper highlights the trends of engineering plastics modification and their extensive applications in automotive, electric/electronics, communication, transportation, aerospace and machinery sectors.

Engineering plastics refer to a category of plastics that can be used as engineering structures.  With low density, high specific strength, excellent wear resistance, low friction coefficient, high thermal resistance, excellent electrical insulation, chemical stability and acid/alkali resistance, excellent coloribility, modifiability and processability and other remarkable advantages, they find extensive applications from automobile, electric/electronics, communication, transportation to aerospace and machinery, thus becoming one of the important indicators to highlight the industrial development level of a country.

Modification of engineering plastics

Engineering plastics can be modified via physical, chemical or physical/chemical combined approaches, including blending (alloying), copolymerization (grafting) and filler reinforcement. Modification can substantially improve the performance of engineering plastics. In addition, modification can use one polymer matrix to produce multiple products of diversified applications to improve production and operation flexibility, use single machine for multiple purposes and accomplish the production of serial and specific products.

Trends for engineering plastics modification:

1. Use general plastics in place of engineering plastics.Thermoplastic general plastics feature high output and low cost. We can leverage reinforcement, filling, alloying and other relevant techniques to improve their mechanical property and thermal resistance. Use of these plastics in place of engineering plastics in specific applications can reduce cost. With excellent cost-effectiveness, PP composite materials and alloy, in particular, have become the largest plastic category for applications in the automobile sector.

2. Improve performance for general engineering plastics. Copolymerization, blending, alloying and composition of general engineering plastics can substantially improve mechanical property, thermal resistance and durability. These general engineering plastics can be used in place of special engineering plastics in specific applications. In addition, an important trend for high performance is to leverage modification for engineering plastics to have magnetic, electric and antibacterial functions. While high-performance carbon fiber, carbon nanotube and graphene preparation process is becoming mature, high-performance and multifunctional engineering plastics present great potentials.

3. Low-cost special engineering plastics. Due to extremely high market price, special engineering plastics are generally used for military products only. Only after reducing cost can they be used for civil products and thus expand applications. Approaches to reduce cost include the following: One is to blend, alloy, fill and reinforce general plastics with general engineering plastics; the second is to reduce cost for monomer sources; and the third is large-scale production.

4. Green materials, process and products. With the intensification of environmental awareness of the entire society, only those products from renewable resources, green technical equipment and engineering plastics are safety products meeting public expectations and degradable, renewable products will have increasingly greater market demand. Future engineering plastics not only can be recycled but also accomplish green raw materials and processes.

In the next five years, according to industrial experts, the trend of engineering plastics is higher performance and lower cost. Some high-performance engineering plastics with thermal resistance, wear resistance, electrical conductivity and electromagnetic shielding functions are expected to witness faster growth. In addition, special attention should be paid to such conceptions as environmental protection and recycling in the molecular design and manufacturing process of engineering plastics.

Applications of engineering plastics

Application in the automotive sector

As the most important lightweight car materials, engineering plastics are finding increasingly more applications in the automobile sector.As the most important lightweight car materials, engineering plastics are finding increasingly more applications in the automobile sector. Engineering plastics can reduce the weight of auto parts by 40%. When car deadweight is reduced by every 100kg, per 100km fuel consumption can be reduced by 0.3~0.5L and per km CO2 remission can be reduced by 8~11g. In addition, application of plastic auto parts can improve the functions of auto parts, streamline manufacturing process, improve vehicle comfort and safety, reduce production and maintenance cost and provide greater design flexibility. Engineering plastics can find applications in every part from exterior trim, interior trim to functional components and structural components.

Application in the electric/electronic sector

Consumption of engineering plastics for manufacturing electric/electronic components accounts for 30% of total engineering plastics consumption. They have been used as casing material, cladding material, matrix material and insulating material for electric/electronic equipment and components. Also, they will be used to substitute metal and thermoset plastics. For example, thermoplastic engineering plastics are gradually substituting thermoset plastics for manufacturing plug parts. In recent years, plastics with functions of electric conductivity, magnetic conductivity and electromagnetic shielding are gradually substituting traditional electric/electronic materials. On the other hand, the blowout development of popular electronic products such as iPhone and Apple Watch also promote the applications of engineering plastics in this sector.

Application in the construction sector

With such advantages as light weight and low cost, plastic building materials find extensive applications in the building sector, mainly including plastic door/window, plastic pipes and plastic flooring. Currently, plastic pipe market in China maintains 15% annual growth rate. Plastic door and window market is expected to exceed RMB one trillion in market scale for door and window retrofitting of existing buildings alone; in the next 3 to 5 years, thermal insulating material is expected to gain 30%~40% or even 50% application share in the building sector, and energy saving and remission reduction provide great opportunities for the development of plastics in the plastic building material sector. The application of engineering plastics in the building material sector is dominated by PC panels, including greenhouse, daylighting corridor, dome, courtyard lighting, community signboard, road signs, billboard, advertising lampbox, telephone booth, vending machine and switch panel. Noise barriers on highway are also fabricated using PC panels. Customized high-end electric switches and switch panels are mostly fabricated using engineering plastics. For pipe fitting, with the ever-growing applications of plastic piping, nylon will substitute metal as main connecting materials while thermal barrier strips for aluminum alloy doors and windows will extensively use PA66.

Application in machine engineering

The application of engineering plastics in machine engineering accounts for 11~12% in total output, mainly including gear, bearing, bearing cage, casing, pulley, slide block, valve, propeller and fan blade. In addition to lightweight, high strength, excellent molding property and low cost, extensive application of engineering plastics in machine engineering is also attributable to other advantages such as excellent wear resistance, self lubrication, energy absorption and noise reduction. Engineering plastics for power tools should have excellent fire retarding and electric insulating property. Engineering plastics used in this sector mainly include PC, reinforced PC, reinforced PA6 and PA66, and fire-retarding reinforced PP and PBT, accounting for 50% of total engineering plastic consumption in the machine engineering sector.

Application in 3D printing materials

Compared with metal, plastic 3D printing material is easier to prepare and features less rigid environmental requirement and lower printing temperature, thus gaining rapid growth in recent years. In the next 5 years, the global 3D printing material market is expected to witness 17.9% annual growth rate and the categories of thermoplastic materials are also expected to maintain 20% annual growth. The market share of such thermoplastic materials as ABS, polylactic acid, nylon and PC is expected to hit USD 192.6 million in 2019 from USD 64.50 million in 2013. The largest market for 3D printing materials is the automobile industry, accounting for 26% in 2013. On the other hand, automobile end products for 3D printing only maintained no higher than 12.3% annual growth rate, lower than the growth rate in other leading sectors. With the successful development of PEEK special 3D printing material and relevant equipment, the output value of engineering plastics for medical equipment and dental 3D printing is expected to witness rapid growth and exceed the automobile sector. In addition, the aerospace sector is also an important consumer of engineering plastics for 3D printing.

Development trend of engineering plastics

Opportunities and challenges coexist for the development of engineering plastics. Engineering plastics are witnessing rapid growth in China and robust domestic demand provides rare opportunities for the development of engineering plastics in our country. However, we should be aware of the severe challenges ahead. It is recommended to take effective measures to deal with these challenges:

(1) Intensify the development of engineering plastic synthetic resin. China engineering plastic industry has gradually shaped its industrial chain, and has some auxiliary capacity in resin synthesis, composite material and alloying, processing and application. Our engineering plastic resin production enterprises and large chemical enterprises should leverage enterprise, university and research institution collaboration or technical absorption to accomplish breakthrough in some specific products.

(2) Intensify proprietary innovation in the entire industrial chain from material composition, structural and performance relation, product design to processing and application, and constantly launch proprietary new products, new processing technique and new applications to participate in competition in the high-end engineering plastics market. Meanwhile, enterprises should intensify self disciplining and leverage high quality instead of vicious competition to increase enterprise profit and thus promote the sustainable healthy development of the engineering plastics industry.

Merger and acquisition is changing the pattern of the engineering plastic industry around the world. In recent years, M&A is becoming a popular trend in the world’s plastic industry imposing significant impact on the industrial pattern of engineering plastics in the world. Industrial enterprises should focus on capacity expansion, merger and acquisition to find opportunities for product applications, including such sectors as automobile, transportation, electric/electronics, industrial and machinery packing, and home appliances.

Meanwhile, China has become the fastest-growing market for demand of engineering plastics in the world. Many overseas enterprises are trying to seize a share of the Chinese market. Many transnational corporations such as Bayer, Teijin, Polyplastics, Asahi Kasei/DuPont and DSM are entering China’s synthetic resin market. They build PC and POM production facilities and expand PA production capacity, and have shaped substantial competitive edge in composite material and alloyed medium to high-end products. 

(Yang Guisheng is the President of Shanghai Genius Advanced Material (Group) Co., Ltd.)

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