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Re-inventing the (plastic) wheel, in China's shared bike industry

By Rebecca Kanthor | PLASTICS NEWS CHINA

Guangzhou, China -- On Chinese streets, bicycles are coming back in favor, but with a new twist that means a boost for the plastics industry.
In the last year and a half, bike-sharing companies have mushroomed in Chinese cities. Shanghai alone now has a reported 450,000 shared bicycles, rented though GPS-enabled mobile phone apps.
But the heavy riding that the rent-a-bikes must endure has created a new market for some global plastics makers: They're working with Chinese companies to solve a key challenge, building a more durable tire.
In May, both BASF SE and Dow Chemical Co. announced partnerships with Chinese firms in the so-called smart bike-sharing industry to make better tires, since the air-filled rubber tires in traditional bikes can't take the pounding.
"You can't use air-filled tires, that's for sure," said Wang Chao, cofounder of MoBike, a Shanghai-based firm that says it's the world's largest smart bike sharing company. "All shared bicycles have failed to find a suitable solution so far. The best balance has not yet been found."
At the recent Chinaplas show in Guangzhou, BASF announced a partnership with Chinese bike maker Battle Fushida and Shanghai-based LOE Design to develop an airless tire made from two layers of Elastopan, a polyurethane microporous foaming material used in Puma running shoe soles.
Using the two layers of Elastopan, each with different densities, works better than having two layers of different materials, said LOE General Manager Yang Wenqing.
"We need to have a material that can last for years in the outdoors," he said. "It should be soft but not too soft, so the requirements are quite specific. The outer layer is for strength and durability and the inner layer is soft for elasticity."
China's shared bike industry has been using different versions of solid tires. About 60 percent of the market uses a rubber-PU foam combination. Others use a honeycombed design made from thermoplastic elastomers. But bike makers are searching for better tires.
"The defining characteristic of these shared bikes is that anyone can ride them," Yang said. "But who repairs them has become a big issue for the industry. Shared bikes are kept outside in areas where no one can take care of them, so we need to cut down maintenance on the bikes to save costs.
"If you needed to constantly maintain them, the costs would be really high," he said.
Li Youlin, development director at Battle Fushida, China's largest bike maker, said the BASF tires cost more initially, but over the long haul are a better deal.
"It may be more expensive than traditional materials, but you have to consider the convenience it brings to the end user," he said at Chinaplas. "Manpower is the most expensive. My clients are all smart, they wouldn't want to waste their money."
BASF said it considered ease of manufacturing in developing the tire design.
"When we developed this product we were looking for maximum durability, for it to last as long as possible, but also easy processing so that when manufacturing this tire, it's a fast and efficient process," said Andy Postlethwaite, BASF senior vice president for performance materials in Asia Pacific. "And I think this contributes to the total cost of ownership, which was a key point."
BASF, Tianjin-based Battle Fushida and LOE said they developed their tire for one of the leading Chinese bike-sharing companies but declined to identify their customer.

A lot of sharing
Smart bike sharing has grown rapidly in China in the short time since companies first launched their apps and rental fleets.
Mobikes, for example, said it started operating in April 2016 and now has more than 3.6 million bikes in 60 cities. Its bikes are used for about 20 million rides a day.
City streets have become a veritable rainbow of bikes for hire, with yellow, gray, blue and green bikes from many different companies all competing for sidewalk space.
The business model aims for ease of consumer use. Customers scan QR codes on the bikes with their mobile phones to unlock and start riding for as little as 0.5 yuan, or about 7 cents.
While public bike sharing programs around the world typically involve fixed docking stations, the Chinese versions include GPS so users do not need to leave the bike in a dedicated spot, making it easier to find bikes in any corner of the city.
It's a very competitive market, with companies searching for ways to innovate and differentiate.
Smart bike companies have come out with models with design elements aimed at women, or other models with colors in lots of bling-bling hues (known in Chinese as "nouveau riche gold") that include cell phone battery chargers in the frame.
Change goes beyond the consumer level. The rise of the shared bike model has radically changed business for bike manufacturers, said Li of Battle Fushida.
Instead of building traditional bikes, he now has more orders from bike share companies. Li would not speculate on whether this will be a long-term development, but he did share that the numbers have been dramatic.

Dow and Mobike
BASF is not the only global plastics maker getting involved.
On May 12, Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical announced a partnership with Mobike that the companies called a long-term and comprehensive strategic partnership targeted both at products and market trends, including research and development.
The first fruit of the cooperation uses PU for foamed tires in Mobike's new Light Breeze model. Compared to typical solid tires, Dow said its PU foam tire helped reduce tire weight by 20 percent, with better shock absorption and durability.
"Dow's advanced materials solutions can help reduce the weight of Mobikes and lower the environmental impact caused by bike production and use," said Dow Greater China President Yoke Loon Lim. "These efforts will serve as a model of a low-carbon lifestyle and green transportation, and contribute to the growth of China's bike sharing market."
Dow officials told Plastics News they pursued the partnership with Mobike. The plastics maker had been successful using solid PU foam tires on wheelchairs and saw potential in the shared bike industry.
It was a fast turnaround: Dow began talking with Mobike in October and the new bike with Dow materials was on the market in April, to mark the one-year anniversary of the official launch of the first Mobike, Dow said.
The plastics maker provided two types of tires with its Comfort Science PU products: a rubber tire with molded PU foam inside, and a tire molded entirely from PU.
Chinese executives suggested they are looking at other innovations involving plastics.
"We're like Apple," said Battle Fushida's Li. "We're trying to upgrade and optimize to make the perfect product, and our product is not perfect until the end of the world."
LOE Design's Yang said he dreams of an all-plastic shared bike.
"The design of a bicycle is over 200 years old," he said, "so making it from plastic will require some design changes. That's a really big challenge, and that makes it interesting."

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