Mapping future drivers for Canada’s plastics industry
F acing factors as diverse as emerging markets, a strong domestic currency, a weakening economy in the U. S. market, more regulation and product bans and corporate consolidation, the Canadian plastics...
Facing factors as diverse as emerging markets, a strong domestic currency, a weakening economy in the U. S. market, more regulation and product bans and corporate consolidation, the Canadian plastics industry is reeling from the barrage of constant change and increasing uncertainty.
Recognizing the crossroads our industry and others was facing, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association launched a program of study and consultation. Our effort, begun in mid- 2005 and concluded in late 2007, was the Plastics Technology Roadmap, a plan that sets out the key drivers that may transform the industry by 2017. Participants in the process agreed on four key drivers, and also that future success was going to be dictated by ensuring that all four drivers were incorporated in some measure.
Included in the list were mass customization, the ability to get new, innovative products to market faster with higher degrees of design and engineering; hybrid materials, the modification of basic polymers with composites such as natural fibres, metals, bio-derived materials and nano materials; and high value add, which is the recognition that Canada will never be a commodity low cost leader and that future products will need more design and engineering input, will be made of newer, innovative materials and will generally command higher prices and perhaps greater margins.
The final of the four drivers is sustainability, and there are a few surprises here. All focus groups mentioned the growing importance of sustainability and life cycle thinking. In fact, three forms of sustainability were identified. Our processes must be sustainable, meaning that we will manufacture cleanly and reduce emissions to air, water and ground. Our products will be more sustainable, meaning that they will be free of elements that could harm the environment or human health. It also means that there will be a clear understanding of how they will be dealt with at end of life.
The final aspect is the design and manufacture of products which themselves aid in achieving sustainability: light-weighting of cars and planes to reduce fuel consumption; the use of innovative plastics in wind, thermal or solar energy; and the use of bio-derived plastics in green building. In fact, discussions of sustainability lead to the realization that it will most certainly drive future growth in the industry.
Now, in the early stages of implementation, the Roadmap is leading to a range of questions. Where will the innovation come from? Do we have the research infrastructure to deliver on that innovation? At a time of tight margins and increasing consolidation, is the industry in a position to embark on this innovation? How can we get governments to create the business and regulatory environment that will encourage this transition? What, if any, is the case for investing or re-investing in the Canadian plastics industry?
There are numerous positive developments to point to, not the least of which is the growth in bio fuels, bio plastics and bio composites. Yet, it’s also clear that we need a new push of innovation in design and engineering, automation and tooling, and material science. The evidence also indicates that we will need to understand life cycle thinking much better and pay attention to end of life management technologies such as automated recycling.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ll need to foster recognition that an industry that generates over $50 billion in economic value to the country still has a positive future, even in the face of global challenges.
Serge Lavoie has a 27 year background managing not-for-profit associations. He has been president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association since February of 2003. Prior to that he was the chief executive of six other national organizations in fields as diverse as newspaper publishing, book retailing, information services and computer networking.