Covestro AG is mulling the expansion of its polycarbonates business with the option to increase production in China and potentially adding a significant capacity to an as yet unspecified plant within the next four years.
The investments are in response to an increased demand by major growth end markets such as mobility, electrical and electronics (E&E), medical and consumer production, according to Philipp Polenz, Covestro's head of polycarbonates business unit in the North America region.
In Caojing, China, Covestro is considering to increase production by 50 kilotons per annum (ktpa) between 2020 and 2022, raising the total capacity of the plant to 150 ktpa a year.
"In addition to this, we plan to add production capacities of 130 ktpa by 2022 in a site which is still to be defined," said Polenz in an interview ahead of Fakuma.
According to Polenz, these expansions are based on the development of demand for polycarbonates, which Covestro estimates to grow at a compound annual rate of 4% in the next five years.
For the Leverkusen, Germany-based chemical supplier, global trends such as increasing population, urbanisation, climate change, energy demand, increasing mobility and digitalisation are key growth drivers.
And trends like electric mobility (EV) and autonomous driving (AV) could accelerate the demand growth above base case, Polenz pointed out.
According to the Covestro official, functional plastic solutions with polycarbonate play "a vital role" in the new EV/AV trends by ensuring economic, safe and individual integration.
These include futuristic ideas such as a new wraparound glazing, with a roof like a dome, to offer a 360-degree view for passengers, or a seamless front-end module that can integrate sensors and antennae into car body parts of autonomous vehicles.
Another theme for future mobility is the integration of battery cells of lithium-ion batteries. In order to position a large number of battery cells precisely and in a small space, cell holders and frames as well as housing components must be very dimensionally stable and mechanically robust.
To achieve this, the company has developed various polycarbonate blends that meet these requirements and are also extremely impact-resistant over a wide temperature range, especially at subzero temperatures.
At Fakuma, the company is presenting various battery modules, cell holders, crash absorbers and other products using Covestro material solutions.
But such completely new car concepts will require new regulations, for example, a new standardisation of technologies and processes or the use of materials.
In one example Polenz said, for autonomous driving it needs to be clarified how the communication between an autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian should work.
"Who is waiting at a crosswalk, not knowing whether he may safely cross the street," the Covestro official said.
However, as far as polycarbonates are concerned, Covestro reassures its customers and automotive OEMs that it could push many boundaries with the materials.
In addition to polycarbonates, Covestro has also seen increased demand for its recently scaled-up continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composites (CFRTP) technology.
The demand has been largely driven by global trends for lightweight solutions, where the CFRTP composites offer strong and light materials.
"At our production site in Markt Bibart in southern Germany, we are using continuous carbon or glass fibers and impregnate them with polycarbonate resin, thermoplastic polyurethane or other thermoplastic resin for manufacturing unidirectional reinforced tapes and sheets," Polenz explained.
The result is strong, light and aesthetic materials that can be combined into an unlimited number of products, opening up new creative opportunities for designers.
Covestro stepped up its CFRTP activities with the acquisition of startup composites manufacturer TCG in Markt Bibart, in southeastern Germany, three years ago. Since then, it has scaled up production of continuous-reinforced composites to an undisclosed commercial level.
The company unveiled the thermoplastic composite brand Maezio in August, saying it aimed to "accelerate the democratisation of composite materials" with the product.
"Being thermoplastics, they can be thermoformed with existing thermoforming tools at high yield rates and low cycle times and are thus suitable for mass production," noted Polenz.
With strong interest from diverse segments such as E&E, automotive, medical and sports segments, Polenz said, the company is "confident" in the future of the material.
"The breadth of applications is enormous, and the way our products can touch consumers' lives is extensive," he said.
Another area that has come to light in recent years is digitalisation.
Covestro introduced its Digital@Covestro programme last year, with three main themes of digital operations, digital customer experience and digital business models.
In the digital operations area, the cost efficiency of the company's own technical processes is improved, primarily in production.
Digital customer experience opens up new digital channels for contact with customers, while digital business models aim at new business models, for example online trading platforms for standard products.