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Advisory Board of K 2022: Part 2 - Technology and Trends

K 2022 will present the plastic and rubber industry undergoing a transformation process. A good century after its material saw the light of day, the plastics industry is becoming aware of the leading role it currently also plays in society and the responsibility this brings with it. No longer just “faster, higher, wider” and no longer can everyday improvements guarantee economic success as was the case during the rapid rise of this technology during the last century. The industry is now starting to look beyond its own backyard, securing the sustainability of its activities for coming generations. The industry will demonstrably prove that – as experts know – polymer materials are not part of the problem but in most cases part of the solution.

The questions arising in connection with the resource-saving use and reuse of polymer materials are more and more pressing. Possible resource savings, the efficient processing of plastics, especially their broad-based collection, sorting and reclamation as a “Circular Economy” remain the central task for the industry. This was reflected very clearly at the latest edition of K in Düsseldorf. Never before had the sector addressed an issue so unanimously; and this issue is not one that will be solved quickly. Too profound are the interventions required in the global organisation of the value chain, too high is the investment needed for solutions to be implemented “at the drop of a hat”. The 2020s will be characterised by this and so the circular economy will continue to accompany K as a decisive trend.

This topic is intimately linked with climate protection issues. These can no longer be ignored because the future as forecast by scientists is now starting to manifest itself worldwide in unusual and negative weather phenomena. The days of delaying matters are over, action is needed now.

Incidentally, polymers have advantages over inorganic materials and offer big opportunities as they are substances generally requiring low energy to be transformed. At the same time, however, synthetic plastics have to consider their so far predominant raw material basis – needless to say, fossil resources do not boast an specially spotless image when it comes to their impact on global warming.

Digitalisation has been a key technology topic for years now. K 2022 will visualise the current state of affairs in the digitalisation of processes in
the plastics and rubber industries, flag up solutions and their benefits and provide incentives for their broad-based translation into daily, industrial practice.

The triad of these mega trends – Circular Economy – Climate Protection – Digitalisation will therefore determine K 2022. It is already clear that
these themes will have a positive impact on one another. Industries do not exist in isolation but always form an important part of the social fabric of their time and have to come up with answers to the relevant questions. Plastics and rubber can offer these and K 2022 will give proof of that.

Circular Economy: industry in motion worldwide

No other task has occupied the industry as much in recent years as the development of a well-functioning circular economy for polymer materials. The starting shot for this was clearly heard at K 2019 and has led to strong movement at all stages of the value chain. A former niche topic, it has now clearly moved centrestage.

A change in direction can also be seen among large production companies. European corporations, in particular, have often acquired
plastics recycling companies that developed high-quality solutions for post-consumer recycling (PCR) in recent years. The vision: new types of materials with at least proportions of PCR raw materials – qualityguaranteed to rank on a par with primary goods, easy and safe to use for every processor. As a result, the major material suppliers, both corporate groups and independent compounders, will offer many new material types with that sought-after “recycled content” at K 2022.

However, this is only a first step towards more comprehensive solutions, as is clear to all stakeholders. The quantities are simply not sufficient to meet the upcoming targets. In recent years, an unparalleled run on recycled PET began in Europe, which has made the secondary materials noticeably more expensive than the primary ones. The background to this is the strong demand from users of plastic products, especially in the packaging sector, who are pushing for the use of PCR goods because of regulatory requirements and consumer image. In the search for suitable material, the supplying processors usually come across recycled PET very quickly. This is because recycled polyester is so far the only plastic that is recycled throughout Europe in really significant quantities and at the same time of sufficient quality – both prerequisites for an economically justifiable use.

On the other hand, the primary polymer packaging materials are dominated by the two bulk plastics polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). These types of plastics, grouped together as polyolefins, account for two thirds of all primary polymers used for packaging. However, they are not yet on the market in sufficient quantities and certainly not in a sufficient quality for high-quality packaging as PCR materials. This applies analogously to almost all application segments of both plastic and rubber products.

“Design for Recycling” seeing a leap in importance

The main reason for this is that for decades the plastics industry has had to design and engineer primary products exclusively for the efficient fulfilment of all customer requirements in order to operate successfully. The result in many cases is composites made from materials incompatible with recycling. The material streams to be recovered from general collections after product use are too mixed to be economically processed into high-grade, quality-guaranteed PCR materials – and this despite all the sophisticated sorting and separation processes that especially the European mechanical and plant engineering industry has been developing and marketing successfully for many years.

In order to fundamentally improve this situation, the properties necessary for recycling after use must already be incorporated in the design, development and production of primary products. The recyclingfriendly design of products is therefore increasingly proving an “enabler” for the development of a sustainable circular economy of polymers. This task concerns the entire value chain – from material production, mechanical engineering and processing to the users of the products and the subsequent collection, sorting and recycling.

“Design for recycling” is set to permeate the industry to an unprecedented extent. K 2022 will therefore not only see further developments in the necessary recycling technologies – collection, sorting, cleaning, filtering, mechanical processing through to chemotechnical and chemical recycling – which have already been booming for several years. A very important trend for the future circular economy is, for example, the development of films made of monomaterials or compatible materials that can replace previous composite films, for instance for the increasingly popular “stand-up pouches”, without any loss of quality. Mechanical engineering will offer the first solutions here.

A number of corresponding approaches will also be on show in many other product areas. The associated digital capture of the relevant characteristics of primary products for improving automated, use-based sortability is another approach that combines two of the leading themes of the trade fair and is attracting a great deal of interest.

It will also be exciting to see the impulses and developments coming from Asian exhibitors. With the import ban on used plastics in force since January 2018, the important market in China has seen a change in direction towards the circular economy, providing impetus to a number of companies active there. With the Covid pandemic, the exchange of information and thus knowledge about developments has unfortunately diminished. K 2022 is now the first meeting place where approaches and initial practical experience can be exchanged worldwide.

The introduction of the circular economy will not stop short of any stages of the value creation chain; the transformation encompasses the entire chain. And so industry talks and many discussions and conversations with stakeholders such as politicians, NGOs and other social groups at K 2022 will revolve around the Circular Economy. This is important, among other things, because it touches on another issue that is driving the industry: the increasingly serious lack of committed young talent. Convincing future concepts increase the attractiveness of the plastics industry for young people.

Climate protection: key issue that also touches the plastics industry

Every industrial human activity requires energy and raw materials. As mankind is literally beginning to experience “up close and personal” the serious long-term impact of generating energy from the burning of fossil fuels deployed so successfully until now. The resulting massive release of carbon dioxide causes the earth’s atmosphere to heat up. This in turn changes climate conditions to such an extent that the survival of humanity as a whole is called into question.

The plastics industry can, wishes to and will also face this existential question. That is why the advisory board of K 2022 has set climate protection as a further focus. Of course, a lot is already being done for the CO2 balance of plastics through the implementation of the circular economy. This is because through material recycling and the associated move away from incineration, the carbons are not released, but remain sustainably bound in the polymer chains.

This alone, however, will not be sufficient. On the one hand, the issues of sustainable energy production and the associated energy efficiency are of great importance for every industry. On the other, over half the rubber and a good 99% of plastics are produced on the basis of fossil resources – albeit mainly from what is left over from energy production from oil, gas or coal that cannot be used for this purpose.

Both questions essentially and urgently concern the production of polymers. In the plastics value chain, the chemical industry has by far the highest energy demand for the production of polymer chains. Once produced, polymers require very little energy to transform into products compared to inorganic, mineral or metallic materials – one of the most important economic factors of their success.

At K 2022, producers will present their concepts and the first practical approaches to supplying processes from renewable energy sources such as wind power. Here, European companies often prove global pioneers, as the traditional ties to petrochemicals are no longer quite as strong here as in regions with high reserves of fossil resources. If this can be achieved with the most energy-intensive processes in the plastics industry, the implementation in the further links of the value chain is a comparatively simple task.

Raw materials for polymer production move into focus

The question of the raw material base is also a major challenge for the manufacturing industry, although it is not the only one. The fact that hydrocarbons as the basis for polymers are also available in abundance in renewable raw materials is not a new discovery. Even the Neanderthals used thermal technology to obtain pitch as an adhesive from birch bark, casein was a polymer material in the Middle Ages, natural rubber and cellulose are successful products of the late 19th century and the direct pioneers for the “synthetic” organic polymers from oil, gas and coal.

At present, however, polymers based on renewable raw materials tend to be niche products, such as PLA (polymeric lactic acid) or the “green” PE based on Brazilian sugar cane. The ubiquitous availability of raw materials from the residues of refineries or gas and coal processing is too dominant worldwide. However, this only applies to a limited extent to the European industry. The youngest refinery in Europe opened more than 50 years ago, and for over ten years now many of the plants here have closed down – it is said refineries are “dying out”. In North America and especially in Asia, on the other hand, refineries are still being built on an extremely large scale or are in the planning stage.

The conversion of energy production to renewable sources opens up new opportunities for the European polymer value chain in terms of energy balance and carbon footprint. This is because alternative raw material sources for polymer production are also becoming economically viable. Appropriate approaches will already be shown at K 2022. This goes as far as the possible extraction of carbon from CO2 (Carbon Capture Utilization CCU) – a waste problem can become a raw material!

Digitalisation: connection of conversion processes possible

The extent of digital connection and/or connection possibilities in the plastics industry varies according to position in the value chain.

For the manufacturing industry as a sub-sector of the chemical industry with its large production systems, the connection of the plants continuously producing from liquids and gases has been a longstanding practice. Of course, digital possibilities for control are used extensively – indeed otherwise the control of the highly complex, interdependent systems in today’s form is inconceivable.

A digitally connected monitoring of raw material and product flows in the production area is being discussed, also industry-wide beyond company boundaries. There are also a number of links to the circular economy and climate protection. The Special Show in Hall 6 organised by the Plastics Europe producers’ association with many demonstrations, lectures and discussions will also have a lot to offer in this regard.

Machine manufacturers for plastics and rubber processing have also been used to digitally control their products (CNC) for some time now. A new development in recent years was the opening up of what were previously largely proprietary “stand alone” solutions for integration into a higher-level control structure. At K 2022, all major manufacturers of systems, machines and peripheral devices will offer such connection options.

The magic acronym for this is "OPC UA", which is short for "Open Platform Communication Unified Architecture". The new generations of almost all control systems have a corresponding interface. This means that on the machine side, there are no more obstacles in the way of a fully digitalised process and operational control in processing, at least for new installations. However, the conversion and penetration of existing machines will remain a challenge for years to come.

It is also not yet clear who will offer the programmes at the OPC UA level that processing companies can use to map and adapt their special conditions and processes. However, it is obvious that translating the opportunities in daily operational practice is the logical step into the next value-added stage, also for small and medium-sized companies in plastics processing. K 2022 can and will provide essential impulses for this.

However, the question of data sovereignty is still controversial at the moment, and this will provide food for thought within the value chain at the trade fair as well. Similar to the large producer groups on the raw materials side, the multinationals in the automotive industry on the customer side are leading the way in the digital penetration of process and operational control. Accordingly, OEMs are becoming aware of the value of data – and they lay claim to it as long as it affects their brands’ end products. “Who owns the data?” There are already disputes about this, for example between the large tyre manufacturers and their OEM customers. Many medium-sized suppliers of plastic and rubber products are watching with great interest to see what solutions can be found here.

Technology innovations remain the driving force for development

But even at a very “mundane” level, plastics continue to make significant contributions to the future. Parting with combustion engines and the transition of mobility to electric drives is only possible with the diverse solutions developed by the manufacturers of technical parts made of plastics and rubber. And lightweight construction will also continue ranking high on the agenda as the technological megatrend of the last decade. The issues of energy and material efficiency remain perennial issues, both in production and in feedstock. A large number of innovative products will be on show at the fair and will continue to set clear trends alongside recyclable products.

K 2022 in Düsseldorf will demonstrate that plastics offer a significant contribution to the solutions of our future!

Source: Messe Duesseldorf