The rubber industry will have to change at a much faster rate than ever before if it is to keep pace with the needs of its main customer-industry
To keep market-share – maybe even to survive – almost every car maker is now looking to severely reduce the impact of their products and operations on the environment.
Electric and hybrid vehicles (EVs) have clearly emerged as the weapon-of-choice in this fight and it is now becoming very clear how determined the OEs are to use it.
At the Geneva auto show, Volkswagen announced plans to launch 70 battery EVs over the next decade and to sell 22 million EVs by 2025 – up from a previous target of 15 million vehicles.
Similarly, Honda announced that all its new vehicles for sale in Europe will be battery-electric or hybrid by 2025 – replacing a previous target of two-thirds.
These are just two recent examples of what has become an increasingly strong signal to the market and its supply chain.
Traditionally, tire and rubber component manufacturers, rubber producers and their raw materials suppliers would have years to adapt to changing customer demands.
But with EVs, solutions are needed sooner than later. Car makers, for example, need to increase travel-distance on a single charge, particularly as the infrastructures for charging vehicles has yet to be developed.
So, while the tire makers, for instance, have made impressive progress in enhancing rolling resistance properties, they are now under pressure to deliver more improvements in this area.
There are, likewise, demands for step-change improvements in reducing tire weight, noise-generation and now increasingly mileage – the longer a tire can be safely driven on, the better its sustainability.
These pressures are, in turn, being passed on to the synthetic rubber suppliers with some reporting significant changes in the materials being selected for use in tires.
In the past year, for example, producers have noted a major shift among tire makers to solution polymerised styrene butadiene rubber – at the expense of emulsion-polymerised grades.
Likewise, the need to reduce rolling resistance is increasing the use of neodymium butadiene rubber (BR) in tires, instead of more conventionally catalysed BR grades.
More broadly, tire makers have drawn up sustainability policies that demand a large-scale more to renewable products and away from fossil-fuel derived materials within two or three decades.
Materials suppliers, therefore, have to come up with similar roadmaps for sustainability that support the policies of tire producers, which are in turn linked to those of the automotive OEs.
This chain reaction – now being accelerated by the push to phase out the use of internal combustion engines (ICEs) – has major implications for the whole rubber supply chain.
Just as the automotive industry has decided to ‘cut the ICE’, rubber manufacturers and tire producers have to weigh up the challenges and costs of moving towards new non-fossil-fuel-based materials.