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Industry vet Franz gazes on plastics’ ‘vast’ future

By Kent Miller | PLASTICS NEWS

As part of a special report on the 75th anniversary of the Society of Plastics Engineers, Plastics News asked a number of executives for their thoughts on what the industry will look like in 25 years.

In his 45 years in the plastics machinery industry, the globe-trotting Helmar Franz has been an executive on three continents. He began his career in 1972 at East Germany's Plastmaschinenwerk Schwerin, working up to senior executive jobs in research and marketing. He was a sales manager in Egypt, Iraq and Russia before joining German press maker Demag Ergotech in 1991, rising to chairman in 1999. He held that position for six years before joining China's Haitian International Holdings Ltd., as chief strategy officer, in 2005. During his tenure, Haitian's sales rocketed from $320 million to about $1.2 billion. He retired in 2015 but remains on Haitian's board.

The longtime fixture of many a trade show recently pulled out his crystal ball (it's made from a PMMA/graphite fiber composite, of course) to share his thoughts on the industry's future.

Q: What trends or innovations will impact the plastics industry in the next quarter century?

Franz: A key in my opinion is to significantly improve the public image of plastics material as a renewable and recyclable material for nearly all engineering tasks. New applications, such as glazing in automotive and building construction and the newly developed heat- and fire-retardant plastics for the automotive industry, heavily depend on the public recognition of plastics as a fundamental material in partnership with or as a substitute for metal, wood and glass.

Q: What advances do you expect in plastics processing?

Franz: I think the plastics-machinery industry should be much more inventive in basic engineering, such as light-weighting of moving parts of the machine. This will allow us to introduce new drive systems and new principles of plasticizing and shaping the plastics that use less energy. The process of converting resin to parts in my opinion is still far too energy-consuming.

Q: What advances do you expect in plastics materials?

Franz: I believe there will be new materials coming up with even more specific properties that meet our customers' increasingly stringent demands for performance, durability, recyclability, energy efficiency and recyclability. This includes new approaches for filled plastics (for instance with nano-fillers) and new composites.

Q: What advances do you expect in plastics processing?

Franz: Machines and processes need to be developed that allow increasingly precise processing. Breakthroughs will be fueled by ever-increased cooperation of plastics material developers, on the one hand, and machine and process developers, on the other.

Due to an ever-increasing speed of change of models of all kind of consumer goods, the lifetime of plastics parts will become less and less. So, it is important to find for every concrete case the perfect balance between productivity and flexibility at best cost. This is an important point to consider with the upcoming challenges of the digitalization of the production process.

We all have to rethink the role of hardware in a world of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution." I think totally new business models will evolve. Today's shared economy and digitalization are only the beginning of this process.

Q: How can employers solve the current shortage of skilled workers?

Franz: Our industry's greatest resource is now, has been and always will be smart, dedicated, inventive people. Top employers should develop loyalty and create an atmosphere in which employees could develop and advance their expertise. Today the entire work environment both physical (for instance campus-like facilities) and mental (being part of a successful brand that is innovative and well-known, being admired by friends and family for working for such a brand) becomes more and more important. Here it is important, that employers better communicate goals and involve employees in reaching them.

Successful managers will use modern communication technologies to reach current and potential employees. They will strongly consider the new values of young employees born around and after 2000. Employers also should cooperate with professional schools, Institutes and universities to make its business attractive in a changed value environment. I would like to quote from the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a ship, you don't need to direct men to collect wood, assign tasks and to arrange work. Instead teach them the desire for the vast and infinite sea." In such terms I think, we need to teach and convince people to love plastics. The innovations and new applications will follow.

Q: Looking ahead 25 years, do you think the plastics industry will be larger or smaller than it is today?

Franz: The plastics industry in 25 years will be definitely larger in scope and importance, giving the fact of innovations in plastics materials as well as in process technologies for new applications.

Q: How will globalization change the plastics industry in the next 25 years?

Franz: I think over time it will come down to what delivers real benefit for every partner. Unfortunately, in recent years globalization hasn't always delivered benefits equitably. As I know from many personal discussions - it sometimes appeared (especially from the side of the developing countries) as a kind of neocolonialism. Large conglomerates - mostly owned or headquartered in developed countries - enlarged their markets in order to scale up. They shifted production to low-cost countries and profits, and hence taxes, to low tax countries. This devastated small businesses in the developing countries. It created lots of unemployment and refugee flows while partly de-industrializing developed countries, as we can see for instance currently in the UK and USA. I think societies worldwide will try to find a new balance for that. The plastics industry, because it is very close to consumer goods and supplies (for instance medical care and packaging) in my opinion should carefully observe such possible development in order to take the correct entrepreneurial decisions in terms of investments, including locations.

Q: What end-markets offer the most opportunity?

Franz: I think we in the plastics industry should be very flexible but focus and concentrate on delivering the best resins, equipment, processes and parts. Where finally a part will end up and in what end market is immaterial. For instance - heat retardant plastics parts may be used in the automotive, medical, aircraft, electronics, building construction, packaging and many other markets. So, we should concentrate on plastics with new properties followed by new applications across industries and end markets.

Q: What are the keys to having a healthy plastics industry in the future?

Franz: As to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the plastics industry must cooperate more with technology industries. We must welcome specialists in digitalization and automation, including logistics and "big data" opportunities. The plastics industry in my opinion should not try to go it alone and create special approaches for plastics. A "go it alone" approach would not deliver the flexibility, standards and continuous upgrades that will be necessary for success. In my opinion the plastics industry should focus on what we do best: creating plastics with new properties, creating new energy efficient processes that lead to new applications, thinking about recycling when starting to design something as opposed to thinking about recycling after the part becomes obsolete, and building energy-efficient and cost-effective flexible machines that can readily be ready integrated into fast-changing software and automation systems.

Concerning the importance of the health of the plastics industry here is just one example to show how important that is. Recently I obtained data from the China Light Industry Information Center - so in China more than 14,000 companies processing/converting plastics had 2016 sales of $344.2 billion, exports of $57.9 billion and net profits of $21.1 billion. This is only China and I would call this healthy and one of the reasons of a generally good market for plastics in China.

Q: What advice would you give to a person considering a career in the plastics industry?

Franz: Besides being bold, spirited and curious, one should also think about the quote I cited earlier from Antoine de Saint-Exupery on "the desire for the vast and infinite sea." To be successful in any field it is not enough to obtain professional skills: one must also have vision and passion.

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