There has scarcely been a time as uncertain as this in the life of any working professional. Whether you are a salaried employee or a businessman, there is no doubt that the current pandemic has caused more than its fair share of sleepless nights. As companies scramble to get back on their feet, they are confronted with a perfect storm of dwindling order books, broken supply chains, and a cash flow crisis like never before. As a result, even companies with relatively strong order pipelines are finding it hard to source raw materials and maintain credit terms with suppliers who may – either due to caution or desperation – need their payments up front.
Manufacturing is no exception to all this, although the impact across the sector has been uneven. While those catering to non-essential products have been hit hard, manufacturers in essential areas have continued to have enough business to at least keep the lights on. That this alone needs to be viewed as a victory in these times tells us the extent of the difficulty. Nonetheless, the rise in certain essential industries along with the indication of where economic activity may be headed once the pandemic subsides should offer manufacturers a road map in terms of where to focus their efforts.
The polymer industry, which has traditionally been naturally diversified across many end-applications, may be well poised to step in and reap the benefits from a world trying rapidly to re-invent itself. Here we look at just a few industries which are evolving and using more polymers as they do.
Although it is sad to say, there is little hope that the automotive sector as we know it will ever regain its earlier shine. Even before the pandemic, auto was in the doldrums, as consumers opted away from car ownership, or held off purchases of traditional fuel-based vehicles for the promise shown by electric vehicles.
It is difficult to see – given the levels of unemployment, work-from-home directives, and extreme job uncertainty – why anyone would be thinking of buying a motor vehicle at this time or any time in the next four to six months at least. What this might spell for the industry is presently catastrophic.
However, it is not all glum. The farm sector has seen some activity, as this is one area that has been forced to stay open throughout the lockdown. Farm equipment and vehicle manufacture has kept pace even during the slowdown and will most likely survive. Further, there is – for now at least – little threat of an electric vehicle onslaught on farming.
Consequently, companies that are able to pivot and remain relevant in the electric vehicle space would survive in the long term. Again, even sales of EV are likely to be highly subdued for the next few quarters, but there is little doubt that companies steeped in combustion engine manufacturing need to start stepping out and engaging in R&D for EVs.
For polymers, the opportunity remains to offer light-weight, durable solutions to improve efficiencies and performance. Wherein traditional automotive parts would focus on wear resistance and performance under high load and temperatures, the new engineering focusses on insulation, self-lubrication, and high strength-to-weight ratios. As it happens, polymers check all these boxes.
Key products: Polymer seals, PTFE insulation films, PTFE-Bronze bands for shock absorber struts, Machined parts in PEEK and POM (Polyacetal), injection moulded polymer parts.
For obvious reasons, the medical industry has been one of the few to have survived the pandemic. Although there has been a massive toll – both financially and emotionally – on hospitals and medical workers, the pharmaceutical industry and medical device manufacturers have struggled to keep with demand.
Polymers find multiple applications in the medical field. As the demand for certain devices – such as ventilators – has spiked, OEMs are looking for cheaper, better ways to keep pace with demand, while retaining the effectiveness of their products. Being chemically inert and often pre-FDA approved, polymers lend themselves faster to R&D.
Similarly, in applications such as clean rooms and laboratories, polymer sealing materials are preferred as their behaviour to chemicals is already known.
Finally, the demand for membranes has continued to spike, as manufacturers struggle to find novel ways to make masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). ePTFE membranes have pore sizes slightly smaller than the droplets which carry the virus. In addition to this, they are hydrophobic, meaning that droplets do not adhere to their surfaces. This makes ePTFE an ideal venting material for masks.
Key products: Polymer valves, customized polymer components - both machined and moulded, ePTFE (expanded PTFE) sealing tapes, ePTFE (expanded PTFE) membranes, PTFE tubes.
As an essential service, water has operated through the pandemic and is an industry poised to keep benefiting from as cities expand and existing water sources become scarce. The future of freshwater may depend heavily on desalination plants, which would need waterways and pipelines to connect them to the water supply of cities.
Again, due to their inert nature, polymers are well placed to benefit from the surge of activity expected in this sector. Polymer parts, seals, sealing tapes, and tubes are ideal for applications involving both freshwater and saltwater. The corrosive nature of saltwater and the effluents arising from desalination and water treatment mean that metal can never perform as effectively as polymers.
Key products: PTFE Tubes, PTFE pipe lining, PTFE pipe support bearings, Polymer seals, Polymer valves, ePTFE Gasket Tapes
Even before the pandemic, the urgency for shifting to renewables was at an all time high. Countries that have agreed to the Paris Climate Agreement all accept that without a near-total shift into renewable energy, the global climate crisis cannot be averted. With this in mind, companies in the renewable energy industry have been pushing manufacturers to come up with novel, cost-effective, and workable solutions to be used across the spectrum of applications in renewables.
It is for this reason that we have seen a huge amount of development for self-lubricating polymer parts in wind turbines, moulded polymer parts for solar applications, and high performance sealing materials in hydro-electric applications.
Everyone agrees that renewables are here to stay. With polymers having a huge part to play in this sector, we may see a rapid offtake in the years to come.
Key products: Solar Tracker Bearings, PTFE sliding bearings, Machined polymer insulator blocks, PTFE Seals, ePTFE (expanded PTFE) gasket tapes.