China Bets Big on Automation

By: Tony Deligio 27. July 2016

With the full brunt of the Chinese government behind it, the country’s industrial robot inventory is forecast to explode 2500% from 70,000 in 2016 to 1.8 million by 2025.


Those figures courtesy the China Center for Information Industry Development and shared in a July 26 webinar from the Robotics Industry Association (RIA). The RIA had three China robotics experts outline the market’s opportunities and the explosive growth it could create for western suppliers of industrial automation.


The webinar followed a statement from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) detailing the same types of projections. In that report, Wang Ruixiang, president of the China Machinery Industry Federation (IFR), said he expects his country to join the top 10 nations in the world in terms of robot density—that is the number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees.


In 2015, that figure stood at 36 per 10,000, putting it at No. 28, well below the U.S. (152), Germany (282), Japan (323) and South Korea (437). With a stated goal of selling 100,000 domestically made industrial robots every year by 2020, the industry believes it can join the world’s leaders sooner rather than later.


Ruixiang’s comments came at the China International Summit of the Robot Industry, and they echo reports inside and outside China, from industry and government, on how robotics will help maintain the country’s status as the world’s factory. That factory will also make robots to be consumed in China and abroad. Currently, foreign robot manufacturers enjoy a 69% share of the Chinese automation market, but local players see a shift coming.


At a roundtable during the IFR’s most recent meeting in Münich, Daokui Qu, CEO of Chinese robot manufacturer Siasun, said that by 2020, he believes Chinese robot makers share of the domestic market would increase to 50%.


Regardless of where the robots are made, more and more of them are headed to Asia according to the IFR. In 2015, the region registered the highest sales figures for robots globally—156,000—up 16% from the year prior, with China taking up 43% of that total with 67,000, almost double the second biggest player, South Korea, with 37,000.


Opportunities for U.S. Automation Suppliers
During the RIA webinar, Nelson Lee, president of Sunels Tech & Capital Corp., noted that while there are 2600 domestic robotics and automation related companies in China, many are quite small, with 90% generating less than $16 million in sales. He also said they are forced to rely on imports of key components like reducers, servomotors and controllers.


Despite these challenges, Lee said the Chinese automation industry will continue to expand because of strong government support, including related policies. In fact, on March 21, the Chinese government issued a Robotic Industry Development Plan for 2016-2020, projecting that annual sales of industrial robots will reach 260,000 units by 2024, with the value of the industry to hit nearly $15 billion. To achieve these lofty goals, the domestic industry has sought to partner with western leaders—one example: Chinese firm Midea Group’s pursuit of global leader Kuka.


Economic Slowdown ≠ Robotic Slowdown
In the Q&A portion of the webinar, one questioner noted China’s relative slowdown economically and asked whether or not that would impact the burgeoning automation industry. For Lee, the retraction is actually a positive harbinger.


“China is now making its economy more efficient; getting out of low quality, low efficiency industries and focusing more on advanced manufacturing industries,” Lee said. “This policy basically helps the development of the robotic industry because robotics are so advanced. So even though China is slowing down, the government and companies are putting more effort into robotics.”


While many segments of the economy might elicit a tepid response in conversation, automation does not.


“Whenever we are in China—when we talk with officials and companies—once you mention robotics or robots, they get excited; they want to sit down and talk with you,” Lee said.


Those statements definitely reflect Plastics Technology’s own reporting on the pursuit of advanced manufacturing in the Middle Kingdom, here and here. (Pictured: attendees at Chinaplas 2015 in Guangzhou get up close and personal with automation).


Expanding Global Middle Class Equals Growing Energy Demand

By: Tony Deligio 13. July 2016

There is a clear correlation between economic growth and energy use, or put more mathematically—total people times higher living standards equals greater energy needs.


Larry Gros, ExxonMobil Chemical’s global polymer products and applications technology manager, shared those insights and more at injection molding machine and automation supplier Engel’s first ever North American Trend.Scaut Automotive event, held in Livonia, Mich., at the end of June (read more here and here).


Gros presented ExxonMobil’s Outlook for Energy to 2040—an exhaustive review of what types of energy would see what level of demand from all over the world. From 2014 to 2040, the energy and chemical company sees global energy demand rising by 25%, noting that:


All the world’s energy sources will be needed to meet rising demand to 2040, but there will be a marked shift toward cleaner fuels, particularly natural gas.


While other energy sources make gains, Gros noted that oil will remain the top energy source for transport and for chemical production, with natural gas demand growing more than any other source.


Other key themes explored by Gros included the fact that energy is fundamental to living standards, and because of this, developing nations—which will lead in growth of GDP and living standards over the forecast window—will also lead in growth of energy demand over that time.


In the U.S., per capita energy consumption equates to 7 equivalent oil gallons per day, while globally, the average is only 1.7 gallons per day. “We will quickly see issues if rest of world grows into U.S. levels of consumption,” Gros noted, adding that, “as technology advances, it will improve efficiency and mitigate energy consumption growth.”


Developing World Develops
In 2014, more than half the world’s global GDP of $72 trillion could be attributed to advanced OECD countries, but the fastest growth rates were occurring outside those states, in nations like Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. ExxonMobil forecasts that by 2040, global GDP will more than double to $150 trillion, with all countries making gains, but the fastest rates experienced outside the OECD.


In fact, by 2040, Gros said developing countries will officially account for more than half of global GDP, with China and India expanding at rates of 5% and 5.5%, while the OECD at large grows at a rate of 2% over the forecast period. The greatest growth on a demographic basis, will occur within the middle class, which is forecast to more than double to five billion people by 2030, with the majority of that growth once again coming in India and China. By 2040, 85% of the world’s population will live in urban centers in OECD countries, as the globe adds the equivalent of 30 Chicago's during this period.


Efficiency Gains Allow OECD to Do More With Less
Even though overall energy demand will expand by 25% across the globe by 2040, it will be flat in OECD countries, as efficiency gains allow these countries to do more with less. Meanwhile, the 1.2 billion people without access to electricity today will finally start to join the global energy market. As they do, Gros said oil and gas will remain the world’s primary fuels through 2040, but sources of energy will shift. Particularly for coal, which will see its share of demand drop from 26% to 20%, while renewable sources, natural gas and nuclear grow.


Emissions to Flatten, Decline
In terms of emissions, Gros said ExxonMobil is predicting that global carbon dioxide output will peak at 2030, and begin to decline afterwards, with emissions falling 20% in OECD countries through 2040.


Fuel Standards Globalize
Transportation remains a key driver for energy demand, and Gros noted that the advent of stricter fuel standards globally will have a huge impact. “In 2008, only four countries had mandatory fuel economy standards, while some others had voluntary ones,” Gros said. “In 2014, many more adopted regulations, and now about 90% of light duty demand is in countries with standards or developing standards.”


Gros said global demand for light duty vehicles will peak in 2020, but added that there will not be fewer cars—with a global fleet of 1.7 billion by 2040—just that tomorrow’s cars will be more efficient (he also said China will surpass the U.S. in 2025 as the country with the most vehicles). Part of that efficiency will come from resins. Gros explained that without plastics, current vehicles would be about 10% heavier, adding that that 10% weight reduction leads to about a 7% improvement in fuel economy.


Instead of electric vehicles, Gros and ExxonMobil expect to see a big jump in hybrid vehicles, with those accounting for one quarter of the global fleet by 2040. 


Europe’s Plastics Machinery Manufacturers Concerned Over the UK’s “Brexit”

By: Tony Deligio 6. July 2016

The United Kingdom is both an important export market for Europe’s plastics suppliers, as well as a location for independent subsidiaries.


In a July 4 press release, Germany’s plastics and rubber machinery association (VDMA), which at 3100 members claims to be the largest industry association in Europe, noted “with regret” the British decision to leave the EU.


The releases subheads summed up the VDMA’s anxieties, stating “Great Britain until now an important market for the industry” and “Uncertainty over future ties with EU cause for concern”.


VDMA President and head of eponymously named extrusion equipment supplier Reifenhäuser, Ulrich Reifenhäuser noted that for two year’s running, the United Kingdom has been the seventh largest export market for Germany machinery, rising 6.6% in 2015 to a value of 152 million euro. In the first quarter of this year, the U.K. actually jumped to the fifth spot, rising 25.9%.


Thorsten Kühmann, the VDMA’s managing director said in the release that many of the group’s members have branches in the UK, adding that “these close ties between our UK partners and the continent will not change.” The release however went on to say:


Plastics and rubber machinery manufacturers do however fear that Brexit will have an impact on investment decisions and hope that the period of uncertainty will be as short as possible.


Many German and Austrian machinery companies have long-standing ties to the UK with Engel UK Ltd. and Arburg Ltd. in Warwick since 1963 and 1992, respectively. Those firms are joined by many other independent subsidiaries including KraussMaffei Group UK in Warrington, Cheshire and Wittmann Battenfeld Group UK, in Wellingborough.


Speaking at his company's Automotive Trend.Scaut event in Livonia, Mich. on June 29, Engel CEO Peter Neumann acknowledged the questions the UK's move poses for companies like his. "With the Brexit complete, we now have a new challenge," Neumann said. "No one really knows what will happen, but the next few years will show what influence this will have to the European economy."


Graeme Herlihy, managing director of Engel's UK subsidiary, which has 34 employees, told Plastics Technology it's too early to gauge any impact. "There's been plenty of talk, but nothing concrete," Herlihy said. "Orders are continuing to come in from projects that were under discussion pre Brexit. I think it will take much longer to establish what the impact will be.


The disruptive vote was held Thursday June, 23, with 71.8% of eligible voters, or more than 30 million people, participating, according to the BBC. By a 52% to 48% margin, “leave” voters pushed through the so-called “Brexit”, in a referendum that saw the highest turnout for a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election.


The day before the vote on June 22, VDMA’s Chairman Reinhold Festge posted an editorial entitled “Europe Cannot Be Allowed to Die”, pointing out the EU’s deficiencies but also noting its overall positive influence on the region.


The history books might show that my generation was too lenient towards the bureaucracy in Brussels, but I am nonetheless convinced that the only alternative to this EU is a reformed, transparent and effective EU. A return to national egoism would certainly do nothing to help Europe assert itself against the increasing competition of a globalized world.


In its post-Brexit release, the VDMA said the British Plastics Federation should continue to be a member and partner of the European umbrella organization EUROMAP.


In a June 24 release laying out its expectations for 2016, the VDMA actually revised its outlook 2% higher. Whether that holds given the tumult the region is experiencing in the wake of the Brexit vote remains to be seen.


In the release, VDMA notes that 2015 output was up by 4.7% with exports 1.6% higher, before adding that business since then had “picked up markedly, prompting the positive forecast for 2016.” The VDMA cited momentum in sales to EU customers and North America. Specifically, the U.S. topped the sales market rankings, followed by China, Poland and Mexico.


In March, the Italian plastics and rubber machinery supplier association, Assocomaplast, reported its 2015 results, which marked an all-time record for exports of 2.9 billion euro, topping the previous high in 2007 of 2.75 billion. Sales to the EU helped push Assocomaplast members to that record, rising 11%. 


Assocomaplast's Stefania Arioli said the UK was the seventh-largest export market for its members in 2015, accounting for more than 112 million euros in machinery, equipment and molds. Arioli noted that extrusion equipment is a particularly strong market for its members in Britain. Arioli added that Brexit was a hot topic at the association's most recent meeting, held June 28.


"Though operators fear the possible consequences," Arioli told Plastics Technology, "generally speaking, we believe it is better not to let emotions overwhelm us. A real evaluation on its impact could be done in a few months." 


The View From The States
The UK is the U.S.'s ninth largest export market, accounting for more than $1.3 billion in goods in 2015, according to Michael Taylor, VP international affairs and trade for SPI. Taylor said that day-to-day operations of businesses in the U.S., UK and EU might not immediately feel an effect, but added—"All businesses engaged in the transatlantic market should prepare for the changes that are inevitably coming." 


North American Auto Sales Will Tap On the Brakes in 2017

By: Tony Deligio 6. July 2016

After spiking thanks to pent-up demand following the Great Recession of 2009, automotive sales will slow in coming years.


That’s the outlook from Haig Stoddard, an industry analyst for WardsAutomotive who has covered the market 30 years. Stoddard spoke at injection molding and automation supplier Engel’s first ever U.S.-hosted Automotive Trend.Scaut event on June 29 in Livonia, Mich.


Stoddard expected light vehicle sales of 21 million in North America (consisting of the U.S. Canada and Mexico) for 2016, in line with the record set in 2015. The U.S. accounts for about 85% of North America’s total volume, and Stoddard sees this year as the peak, as pent-up demand lingering from the 2009 recession has mostly been satiated.


In the U.S., forecast sales for 2016 are 17.6 million, up from 17.4 million in 2015, although when he spoke, Stoddard said the market was running at a 17.4 million rate. Stoddard still believed it would move higher since during a normal cyclical downturn, the “industry doesn’t want to let go,” and it allows production to more greatly outstrip demand.


On the plus side, Stoddard said there are still a lot of old vehicles on road, including many that are not WiFi enabled, which could push consumers into newer models. He also believes interest rates will stay lower, easing financing, and said there will be more drivers, including more young adults moving out of their parents’ homes, who will need vehicles. In fact, Stoddard said the U.S. adds 2 to 3 million licensed drivers per year.


On the potentially negative side, Stoddard noted that the market has seen record lease volume, including accounting for more than 30% sales in first quarter, meaning there will be 3 to 4 million vehicles coming off lease this year and the next three years. This could flood the used car market, pushing shoppers to buy there. He also noted that there is uncertainly in business community, with the November presidential election and Brexit only adding to that sense of anxiety.


Elsewhere in North America, Stoddard said Canada can expect another record year in 2016, topping 1.9 million units, with a slowdown to come in 2017. Mexico will also see a record volume of 1.5 million units in 2016.


A Look Forward
In terms of a production forecast, Stoddard forecast a volume of 17.8 million light vehicles to be manufactured in North America in 2016, with a dip down to 17.1 million in 2017 and 2018, before rising back up to 17.5 million in 2019.


Part of that increase is the result of new plants and expansions, including new facilities in Mexico for VW, Daimler, Nissan, Ford, BMW and Toyota, plus Volvo’s planned site in Ridgeville, S.C.  


40 Years On, TSCA Reformed Marking First Major Update to Environmental Law in 20 Years

By: Tony Deligio 22. June 2016


Plastics industry representatives and environmentalists hailed the passage of TSCA reform, a reboot four decades in the making.


The fact that representatives of both sides of the issue offered praise and criticism of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act indicates the law, which amends the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, represents some amount of compromise on the issue, a rare commodity in Washington DC these days.


TSCA reform was one of six measures signed on June 22, and it enjoyed bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. Apart from naming post offices, there’s not much the both parties and the president can agree on these days. Per the White House, improvements to TSCA included in the reforms include:


  • Mandatory requirement for EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with clear and enforceable deadlines;
  • New risk-based safety standard;
  • Increased public transparency for chemical information;
  • Consistent source of funding for EPA to carry out the responsibilities under the new law


In a blog post, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Gina McCarthy described the law as the first major update to an environmental statute in 20 years (emphasis McCarthy’s).


“TSCA was intended to be one of our nation’s foundational environmental laws. In terms of its potential for positive impact, it should have ranked right alongside the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, which, since the 70’s, have dramatically improved water quality and helped clean up 70 percent of our nation’s air pollution. But it hasn’t….Forty years after TSCA was enacted, there are still tens of thousands of chemicals on the market that have never been evaluated for safety, because TSCA didn’t require it.”


The original Toxic Substances Control Act, signed by President Gerald Ford in October 1976, was intended to provide the EPA:


Authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides.


Prior to its passage, the EPA’s deputy administrator, John R. Quarles testified in 1975 specifically about the risks perceived in chemicals including vinyl chloride, fluorocarbon, bischloromethylether (BCME), polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), saying these chemicals “point to the inadequacy of our present approach to controlling toxic substances.” At the time, Quarles said that every year about 600 new chemical compounds were introduced in the United States for commercial use.


William Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, thanked President Obama for signing the bill into law.


The U.S. plastics industry thanks President Barack Obama for signing this vital piece of legislation. H.R. 2576 delivers a much-needed update to the nation’s chemical regulatory infrastructure and ensures that businesses in the plastics industry can continue to meet the needs of consumers by manufacturing the safest, strongest and most technologically advanced products and materials in the world.


Andy Igrejas, the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families—a coalition of health, environmental, labor and business organizations—noted the importance of the bill’s passage but also noted its perceived limitations.


President Obama’s signature on this bill marks both the end of a long process, and the beginning of a new chapter as the EPA puts its new authority to work. The chemical backlog is enormous. It's vital that EPA starts strong and extracts the maximum public health benefits possible from the new law. Because of the limitations in this bill, however, it will also be crucial that the growing demand for safer chemicals continue across society, from state and local governments, retailers, manufacturers and informed consumers.


Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, praised the bill’s passage, noting the ACC’s long-running interest in the reform.


The reform is a historic bipartisan achievement at a time when such achievements are increasingly rare. It is the first major environmental law passed since 1990. Under it, chemical evaluation and regulation will meet new 21st century standards, which will improve the lives of American families, support American manufacturing and bolster U.S. economic growth. Reforming TSCA has been ACC’s top priority since 2008. For the past three years, ACC and our coalition partners, the American Alliance for Innovation (AAI), have worked together to support bipartisan efforts to modernize TSCA in a way that ensures smart, effective chemical regulation.


The reform was named after former New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who along with Louisiana Senator David Vitter initially introduced TSCA reform in 2013. Lautenberg passed away three years ago on June 3, 2013 at 89, not living long enough to see the law that even the Environmental Defense Fund called a “really big deal.”


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