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nova-Institute Analyzes Growth Potential of WPC & NFC in European Market

Published on 2015-07-15. Author : SpecialChem

The most important application sectors are construction (decking, siding and fencing) and automotive interior parts. Between 10 – 15% of the total European composite market is covered by Wood-Plastic Composites (WPC) and Natural Fiber Composites (NFC). Main authors of the study are Michael Carus and Asta Eder, biocomposite experts of nova-Institute, Germany. The study points out the growth potential of WPC and NFC granulates for injection molding for all kinds of technical applications and consumer goods as well as in the automotive industry. What’s more, bio-based polymers in combination with wood and natural fibers take on greater significance – applied in everything from toys to automotive interior.

The market report gives the first comprehensive and detailed picture of the use and amount of wood and natural fiber reinforced composites in the European bio-based economy. The analysis covers natural fiber as well as Wood-Plastic Composites in extrusion, injection and compression molding in different branches and applications.

To achieve a reliable base of data, the study draws from a survey conducted in 2013 among the WPC and NFC industry, producers and customers. The rate of return was exceptionally high, especially for the WPC part of the study; more than 50% of the extruded volume produced took part in the survey – that means the study covers about 65 European WPC extruding companies in 21 countries. Personal interviews, conducted in 2014 and 2015, show recent trends in the WPC and NFC granulate market.

Trends in Wood-Plastic Composites (WPC) & Natural Fiber Composites (NFC) Market

Wood-Plastic Composites – Decking still dominant, but technical applications and consumer goods rising

The total volume of WPC production in Europe was 260,000 tons in 2012 (plus 90,000 tons Natural Fiber Composites for the automotive industry). The level of market penetration of bio-based composites varies between different regions and application fields. Germany leads in terms of number of actors as well as in production figures. The typical production process in Europe is extrusion of a decking profile based on a PVC or PE matrix. The increasing market penetration of WPC in decking has meant that WPC volumes have risen strongly and that today, Europe has reached a mature WPC market stage. This study predicts growth especially in the German-speaking area on the back of a recovery in construction, especially in renovation, and a further increase of WPC share in the highly competitive decking market. Also, variations of WPC decking models, such as capped embossed full profiles or garden fencing are on the rise across Europe.

The development in shares of applications points to a direction where WPC is increasingly used for applications beyond the traditional ones such as decking or automotive parts. For example, WPC is increasingly used to produce furniture, technical parts, consumer goods and household electronics, using injection molding and also other processes than extrusion. Also new production methods are being developed for extrusion of broad WPC boards.

Application fields of WPC in Europe in 2012
Fig. 1: Application fields of WPC in Europe in 2012

Figure 1 shows the different application fields of WPC produced in Europe. The decking market is leading with 67% (mainly extrusion), followed by automotive interior parts with 23% (mainly compression molding and sheet extrusion as well as thermoforming). Although still smaller, siding and fencing as well as technical applications (mainly extrusion) and consumer goods and furniture (mainly injection molding) are showing the highest increase in percentage. With increasing plastic prices, WPC granulates for injection molding are getting more and more attractive, and are increasingly found in the product range of the European granulate suppliers.

The report also gives an overview of the latest market development in North America and Asia and an overview and forecast of the global WPC market situation, which has grown up to 2.5 million tons of production in 2012. China has the strongest growth rates with a production volume of 900,000 tons in 2012 and is trying to catch up with the largest WPC production volume in the world, which takes place in North America and has grown to 1.1 million tons of WPC production in 2012. The share of WPC decking in the total decking market is increasing again, after a period of housing crises and WPC quality problems that have led to a shakeout of the top WPC producers. The trend in WPC decking is towards producing more filled decking boards (overall market share in Europe is already about 47%) and especially imports from the USA are more and more offered.

Interviews conducted during the FAKUMA 2014 trade fair found a growing portfolio of fiber-filled granulates offered both by producers and retailers; by now there are about 60 producers and retailers active on the market.

Natural fiber composites: Growth potential in automotive due to lightweight components and new processing techniques

The most dominant use of natural fiber composites by far can be found in interior parts of the automotive industry – other sectors such as consumer goods are still in a very early stage. In automotive, natural fibers composites have a clear focus on interior trims for doors for high-value doors and dashboard. Wood-Plastic Composites are mainly used in rear shelves and trims for trunks and spare wheels as well as in interior trims for doors.

Use of Natural Fibres for Composites in the European Automotive Industry 2012
Fig. 2: Use of Natural Fibres for Composites in the European Automotive Industry 2012

Figure 2 shows the total volume of 80,000 tons different wood and natural fibers used in 150,000 tons of composites in passenger cars and lorries, produced in Europe in 2012 (90,000 tons Natural Fiber Composites and 60,000 tons WPC). Recycled Cotton Fiber Composites are mainly used for the driver cabins of lorries.

The highest market shares are made up for by wood (European origin), recycled cotton (from world market) and flax fibers (European origin). Compared to the last survey for the year 2005, the shares of kenaf (from Asia) and hemp fibers (European origin) show the biggest increase in percentage.

Process-wise, compression molding of Wood and Natural Fiber Composites is an established and proven technique for the production of extensive, lightweight and high-class interior parts in mid-range and luxury cars. Advantages (lightweight construction, crash behavior, deformation resistance, lamination ability, depending on the overall concept, also price) and disadvantages (limited shape and design forming, scraps, cost disadvantages in case of high part integration in construction parts) are well known. Process optimizations are in progress in order to reduce certain problems such as scraps and to recycle wastage.

In recent years new improved compression molded parts have shown impressive properties in weight reduction. This is one reason for the increasing interest in new car models. Today with the newest technology, an area weight of down to 1,500 g/m2 can be reached with thermoplastics; thermosets are even aiming towards 800 g/m2. These are outstanding properties compared to pure plastics or glass fiber composites.

In the EU, 15.7 million passenger cars were produced in 2011; in addition, 2 millions of other motor vehicles (incl. trucks, transporter, motor bikes, etc.) were manufactured. Considering that 30,000 tons of natural fibers and another 30,000 tons of wood fibers were used in 15.7 million passenger cars, every passenger car in Europa averagely contains 1.9 kg of natural fibers, respectively 1.9 kg wood fibers, so in total that makes almost 4 kg of these fibers per car.

From a technical point of view, much higher volumes are possible. Vehicles with considerably larger amounts of 20 kg natural and wood fibers have been successfully produced in series for years. The market development depends also on the political framework: Any incentive for the use of natural and wood fibers in the European automotive industry could help to extend the existing amount of 30,000 t/year for natural and wood fibers each. The vision could be an increase of up to five times, that means to 150,000 t/year for each fiber type – the technologies are ready to use. A great potential for biocomposites!

Bio-based plastics are also used for high-value applications in the automotive industry. Bio-based polyamides from castor oil are used in high-performance components, polylactic acid (PLA) are used in natural fiber-reinforced interior door paneling, soy-based foams in seat cushions and armrests and bio-based epoxy resins in composites. A special area at the Composites Europe 2015 in Stuttgart (www.composites-europe.com) as well as the new accompanying conference bio!CAR (www.bio-car.info) will demonstrate what the bio-based car of the future could look like.

About nova-Institute

The nova-Institute was founded as a private and independent institute in 1994. It is located in the Chemiepark Knapsack in Huerth, which lies at the heart of the chemical industry around Cologne (Germany).

For the last two decades, the nova-Institute has been globally active in feedstock supply, techno-economic evaluation, market research, dissemination, project management and policy for a sustainable bio-based economy.

Source: nova-Institute

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