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Midea wants more ties with plastics industry



China's Midea Group, the world's largest maker of major home appliances, is calling for more cooperation with the plastics industry to develop next generation materials like those that can replace sensors or provide new kinds of foam insulation.

That was message from Yuming Xiong, the director of Midea's materials research center, at a Dec. 7 technical conference in China organized by the Society of Plastics Engineers and the owner of the Chinaplas trade fair, Hong Kong-based Adsale Exhibition Services Ltd.

"We pay more attention to material innovation in this area," Xiong said. "We are expecting some new materials can take the function of traditional sensors for our new products."

Midea, which entered the home appliance market in the 1980s making low-tech house fans, said it's looking these days at decidedly higher tech multifunctional appliances, and defines smart materials as those that can react to environmental changes or do things like repair themselves.

Specifically, the company said it's looking for innovation from its plastics suppliers in areas like new foam insulation, dust control, anti-fingerprinting and catalysts.

"As a household appliance maker, we are hungry for new materials," Xiong said. "Unfortunately, most of the new materials are still in an experimental status, like super-hydrophilic material and super-hydrophobic material for easy clean purposes."

Midea has been expanding into technology-intensive markets: it bought German robot maker Kuka AG in 2016, for example, seeing it as a way to get into factory automation and markets for industrial and medical robots.

It said its innovation center, in its headquarters city of Foshan, can accommodate more than 10,000 R&D staff.

The day-long SPE event in the manufacturing and development hub of Shenzhen, near Foshan, included a presentation by the Shenzhen Modern Materials Association on a new Chinese government funding mechanism to involve the insurance industry in financing material development.

The program includes 129 different product categories, including advanced steel and non-ferrous metals, advanced chemicals and composite materials. The program is part of the country's Made in China 2025 initiative.

The event also included presentations on Chinese developments in additive manufacturing, along with talks on the auto industry and research on composites mixing graphene with vinyl and other polymers.

As well, a speaker from China's Kingfa Science and Technology Co. Ltd., China's largest plastics compounder, said it expects materials for smart appliances to be a key driver for research.

All the talk of technology, however, prompted one speaker to urge the industry to remain focused on what the end consumer wants.

David Kusuma, vice president of research and product innovation at Tupperware Brands Corp., told the conference that the company focuses on how its product can improve quality of life, and it increasingly targets product development at multifunctional products.

"The idea has to be new, the product has to be aspirational since it's not cheap," he said.

In an interview after his speech, he urged plastics researchers to keep the end consumer in mind.

"The problem is first you can't focus on the technologies, you have to focus on your consumers' needs," he said. "Then you find those technologies that meet the needs. Because if you first focus too much on the technology... in the end, no one wants that. That's too much work."

He also told the conference that consumers in emerging markets have become major growth drivers for the company. About 66 percent of Tupperware sales in 2016 came from emerging markets, he said, and it's projected that by 2020, more than half of the world's middle class will be in the Asia-Pacific region.

"So this is extremely important for any company that wants to be global to really take into consideration and pay attention to," he said.

The conference was the first jointly organized by Adsale and the Bethel, Conn.-based SPE in China, and Adsale Chairman Stanley Chu said the two organizations are looking at doing more joint events on an annual basis.


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