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7/1/2009 | 2 MINUTE READ

Adjusting to the 'New Normal'

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I'm a Baby Boomer, part of the Youth Generation that never thought about getting old.

I'm a Baby Boomer, part of the Youth Generation that never thought about getting old. I've spent my entire career in plastics, which I've always heard described as a relatively "young" industry. Now, all of a sudden, that industry (like me) looks like it has entered middle age.

History tells us that 200 years ago, more than 60% of the U.S. population was involved in agriculture. Today, it is a good deal less than 10%. That's because technology enabled much higher production with far fewer workers and acres under cultivation. Over the past 50 years, we have seen a similar trend in manufacturing—greater output from fewer people and machines. And now it's happening to plastics. Within just the space of my career, the plastics industry has evolved from the new kid on the block to a mature (or at least maturing) industry. That's not the same as a declining industry—we'll continue to use more plastics as population and GDP grow, and there are still some opportunities to replace wood, metal, glass, paper, etc. We may even see dramatic new applications in areas like automotive and building construction. But overall, we're looking at a change from freewheeling growth with limitless potential to decidedly more staid and sober growth prospects.

From 1992 to 2002, North American poundage consumption of plastics materials grew an average of 4.8% annually. From 2002 to 2007, it grew only 1.5%/yr, though the dollar value of domestically processed plastics grew 3.8%/yr. Depressed poundage growth reflected the surge in Chinese imports, the lightweighting trend in packaging, and increased use of scrap and recycled plastics. The gap between dollar and poundage growth was partly due to higher resin prices, but probably even more to the shift in domestic production to higher-value products in the face of overseas competition.

According to plastics economist Bill Wood, the likely prospect for plastics' long-term growth after 2012 is a little above GDP, or probably in the range of 2.5% to 3%/yr in poundage and 3+% in dollar value. But the growth in productivity of each new generation of plastics machinery is probably higher than 3%. Which suggests that the growing plastics demand will be met by fewer new machines, fewer people, and fewer processing plants.

How will the North American plastics industry—processors and machinery and materials suppliers—adjust to that trend? The answer can be summed up in one word: Technology. This country will never be the world's low-cost producer. And the majority of our molders and extruders will not be buying the cheapest equipment they can get from overseas. They will demand only the highest productivity, automation, energy efficiency, and precision from each machine they buy. They will apply the latest process controls and CAD/CAM/CAE, rapid-prototyping, and rapid-tooling techniques to keep up with ever shorter product cycles and vanishing tolerance for quality variances. And they will adopt new technologies faster than ever before, because emerging economies abroad will not be far behind.

After we climb out of this recession it's still going to be a challenging new world. But it will be a great time to be at a magazine with the title Plastics Technology.