Martin Coles (centre left) Founder and Managing Director, Matrix Polymers
In an exclusive piece for BP&R, Martin Coles, Founder and Managing Director of Matrix Polymers, reflects on the challenges and the opportunities currently facing the global rotational moulding sector.
My time in taking Matrix Polymers forward now approaches a quarter of a century. It therefore seems timely and welcome to take a breath and to embrace the opportunity provided by British Plastics and Rubber in addressing the features and issues of our rotomoulding industry.
Firstly, at Matrix Polymers we have much to savour over our lifespan to date. We are now one of the biggest producers of material for the UK rotomoulding sector. We have the largest technical support staff in the UK and we are now one of the main suppliers to the European market, providing approximately 15 percent of rotomoulding materials used across Europe.
As the exhibits at the recent BPF/ARMO 2015 conference clearly showed, we work closely with OEMs as well as with leading rotomoulders to develop new materials and applications for the process. One such example involves developing higher temperature resistant rotomoulding grades for use in the transport and automotive sector.
And yet – and as well as – Matrix Polymers is a part of a global rotational moulding industry that has yet to really fulfill its true potential.
Did you know, for example, that a staggering 97 percent of the material used in rotomoulding is Polyethylene. Don’t you that think this is very strange? There is no other major plastics process that is dominated by just one material. In truth there are many reasons why our industry so reliant on Polyethylene. The material has a number of performance weaknesses, but also many good things going for it, not least its very competitive cost.
And there’s the rub. It might be summarised thus – ‘Are we content to remain almost totally dependent on one polymer – or can we and should we reach for bigger and better horizons.’ In my view, the answer is obvious.
Consider this one fact: The GRP composites sector - high finish, quality image - uses over a million tonnes of polymer each year in Europe. That is over five times the amount of Polyethylene used in Europe’s rotomoulding industry. You can also bet your bottom dollar that many GRP products command a considerably higher price than rotomoulded equivalents.
Rotomoulding has some footholds in traditional GRP areas - such as automotive and transport, building and boats - but just think how much more we could do with a new materials approach. Specifically, if our industry could process materials that shrank less, had no pin-holes, were very hard and stiff, had glossy surfaces, could be painted… just think then of the thousands of new applications rotomoulders could go after.
We can indeed ‘dare to dream’ but only if we are prepared to put the difficult technical and scientific work into developing material alternatives for the process, namely; tackling long heating cycles; issues of oxidisation; issues of pressure and sintering; issues of powdered polymer feedstock and many other factors.
I am pleased to report that at Matrix Polymers we are already doing just this work. We have committed to a significant new and global R&D programme for non-Polyethylene materials for rotomoulding and for innovations in the process itself.
In conjunction with this we are also committing to significant expenditure in plant and equipment to support the R&D team’s projects, including establishing a new cryogenic grinding system at our plant in Poland – an investment of £300,000, which will greatly increase our capability to produce powders from most polymers.
None of this works without ‘pull’ from the market and so we are also working much more closely with OEMs, in order to help support our customers in developing new products and find new markets.
And then, of course, with all this done we must still face the final hurdle about people’s perception regarding the price of materials.
My view is that as an industry we are going to have to simply abandon the idea alternative materials will have to be at lower cost. It just isn’t going to be like that. Other materials are going to be more expensive and in some cases significantly higher in cost than Polyethylene.
And that practice is the norm in all other plastics processes – PEEK is more expensive than injection moulded ABS, Polycarbonate is more expensive than injection moulded Polyethylene. There are horses for courses. Customers will buy materials for the advantages, the extra performance and the specifications laid down by their customers.
And if my arguments for innovation and creativity in our industry haven’t convinced you, consider the options of standing still…I was at Chinaplas last May and I saw a company making blow moulding machines capable of producing 10,000 litre multi-layer tanks! Threats to the traditional rotational moulding sector are now building from all other kinds of plastics processes. Lower cost moulds and machines mean that both injection and blow moulding will encroach more and more on traditional rotomoulding territory, not to mention the impact of additive or 3D manufacturing in the coming years.
In summary, can rotational moulding afford to carry on as is?
The answer is clearly ‘no’. As an industry we have to work together much closer, we have to believe in broadening our options, we have to invest in a future vision and we have to make it really happen. For our part, Matrix Polymers will continue to commit to the expansion of the industry itself, primarily by targeting the scope of materials available for the process. We look forward to reporting further this year on our new R& D programmes.
Indeed, we believe that only by increasing the range of available and workable materials can rotational moulding significantly grow its scope, its future and prospects.