October 2013: Rubber stamp! Focus on a unique material and its industry

The "Gummistraße" (Rubber street) at K2013. GDeußing

Rubber stamp!

Focus on a unique material and its industry

Although the German rubber industry, which is the global technological leader, recorded a shortfall in the first half of the year, it is demonstrating impressive innovative skills at the plastics trade fair K 2013 and is cautiously optimistic that it will succeed in overcoming the challenges it faces. Rightly so, as a look at the details shows.

The years 2008 and 2011 are often taken as reference points when current performance data are presented and the rubber industry is no exception here. While the global economy slumped in 2008, it proved to be in excellent condition again three years later. The same was true of the rubber industry, which reached an “all-time high” in 2011, “before easing off slightly afterwards”, as Boris Engelhardt explains, who is managing director of the association of the German rubber industry (WDK) that represents the interests of about 130 German rubber companies.

Although the decrease of 2.5 per cent in total sales by the rubber industry to € 11.75 billion in 2012 and of 4.9 per cent over 2012 this year represents “zero growth” and requires critical examination, Boris Engelhardt says, it would be excessive to assume the worst. The managing director of the WDK is convinced that “it would be wrong to talk about an economic downturn like in 2008; consolidation would be a more appropriate description”. (Continued on page 2)


Rubber in our "Topics of the Month"

Rubber has played an important role ever since we started our “Topic of the Month” series. Some of the articles have even concentrated entirely on the production and use of rubber. Here are some representative examples:

Small encyclopedia of the pneumatic tire
Out on the open see in a folding rubber kayak
Dry and "très chic" thanks to wellies
Source/Quelle: istockphoto

The tyre industry is the most important partner of the rubber industry.

The fact that the number of employees in the rubber industry has developed positively in the last two years – against the overall economic trend – is convincing proof that we are not drifting into a new recession. Ulrich Reifenhäuser, chairman of the exhibitors’ advisory council of the plastics and rubber trade fair K 2013, reported when the event began last Wednesday: “Rubber-processing companies had 74,700 employees in Germany at the end of 2012 – 1.5 per cent more than in 2011; this figure had increased to 74,950 by mid-2013”. Both the plastics industry and the rubber industry – which is being represented at the Messe Düsseldorf “rubber fair” by about 400 companies from all over the world – are hoping that K 2013 will stimulate business considerably and lead to full order books.

Boris Engelhardt emphasises that the domestic rubber industry is small compared to its “big sister”, the domestic plastics industry – the total of 130 German rubber companies generated overall sales of € 12 billion last year, whereas the 3,270 companies with 363,000 employees in the German plastics industry recorded total sales of € 88 billion in the same period. In spite of this, the rubber industry is definitely not overshadowed by the plastics industry.

Rubber articles, i.e. elastomers, products made from vulcanised rubber, are proving to be key materials. They are said to be in particularly strong demand when the materials are to be used in an extreme, corrosive environment, when chemical or physical resistance properties are required and when high dynamic stresses are experienced, as is the case in motor vehicles, aircraft and other means of transportation. “No alternatives to rubber are available here so far”, says Boris Engelhardt.(Continued on page 3)


Rubber. What else?

Rubber, elastomers – what would we be without this unique material? In our series “Apropos K”, we have regularly taken a brief or close look at how this material enriches and facilitates people’s lives – and will be continuing to do this in future too. Here are just a few examples:

Polymer materials are the future: mobility depends on rubber
Artificial muscle as shock absorber
Rubber chicken flies into solar radiation storm
Source/Quelle: istockphoto

No matter how powerful and efficient an engine is: it can be destroyed entirely when just one tiny rubber gasket fails.

26 million tonnes of rubber were manufactured and consumed globally last year. Germany is one of the leading production countries in the world. The most important customer: the tyre industry. The managing director of the WDK explains that a car also contains the same amount of rubber by weight as the tyres in the form of, for example, hoses, gaskets or anti-vibration technology.

The proportion of the total weight of vehicles that is accounted for by rubber is minimal and some of the rubber components are extremely small. In this particular case, the “molehill” really does have a crucial impact on the “mountain”, however. Boris Engelhardt puts it very succinctly when he says: “the whole of the engine can be destroyed when a rubber gasket fails.”

Rubber products have proved to be successful solutions for engine gaskets and fuel lines as well as for use as heat-resistant material with poor heat conduction properties in the production of fire brigade rescue masks. In view of the amount of raw material required, many of the applications for which rubber is used are niche markets. There is no alternative to the material so far in these markets, however. Whereas synthetic rubber, which can quite literally be “concocted” in laboratories before being mass produced in consistent quality, is mainly used for technical applications, natural rubber – which is more compatible in direct skin contact – is generally used for medical articles, health products and consumer goods. Natural rubber is chosen to manufacture condoms, pacifiers, gloves, catheters or the containers used in blood banks. 11 million tonnes of the rubber produced in 2011 came from natural sources, while 15 million tonnes were manufactured synthetically on a petrochemical basis. (Continued on page 4)


Condoms too

Contraception using condoms is an issue that has to be covered whenever the subject of rubber and elastomers comes up. Apropos K has highlighted this topic too:

Carnival, candy, condome
Source/Quelle: istockphoto

Sustainability and the recycling of rubber have been standard practice in the tyre industry for a long time now.

Boris Engelhardt reports that the many different requirements made by specific applications stimulate research and development processes in the rubber industry. He points out that the rubber industry is co-operating with the German Rubber Institute in Hanover to carry out several projects, e.g. to optimise mixing processes in the production of rubber, to compile mathematical descriptions of the frequency of faulty rubber products or to develop new coactivators, i.e. special additives that have a positive influence on the manufacturing process. The rubber industry has to respond to such issues as resource efficiency, sustainability and recycling too. The latter has been a political issue in the tyre market for a long time now, which is reflected – among other things – in the large proportion of retread lorry tyres or in the recycling of old tyres to generate energy in cement production, which has been standard practice for years now. In addition to this, a well-known tyre manufacturer (Continental) is, for example, said to be working on the direct processing of retread waste material in the production of new tyres.

Source/Quelle: istockphoto

Natural rubber has been obtained from rubber trees up to now. It is doubtful whether they will be able to cover demand in future, however.

Last but not least, Boris Engelhardt draws attention to the fact that the rubber industry also has to find an appropriate response to the question of how it plans to continue obtaining the raw materials required by the market in future in view of dwindling crude oil resources. There are evidently doubts whether the existing source – rubber trees that only grow in the tropics – can satisfy demand.

What would people be without a washing machine – and what would washing machines be without rubber gaskets?

Whether we are male or female, we are all familiar with those photos of women who are bent double laboriously rubbing their washing on washboards by a river. A tiring job that is now a thing of the past thanks to washing machines. What would such a washing machine be, however – even if it is a piece of modern, high-tech equipment incorporating the latest mechanical, electronic and information technology – without a rubber door gasket? In a nutshell, it would be useless. Because the floor would be soaking wet, something that is annoying to both housewives and househusbands. Our latest “Apropos K” article highlights this ingenious invention.

Source/Quelle: wikipedia

The Guayule plant has the potential to become an important source for the obtainment of natural rubber in future.

Did you know that?

The most important production countries for natural rubber today include Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, which left the former rubber barons in North and South America behind them a long time ago now. A similar power shift could happen again in the foreseeable future: “A plant called Guayule has in the meantime been identified that contains latex milk and can be used to manufacture rubber”, reports Boris Engelhardt. In contrast to rubber trees, however, the Guayule grows in arid regions where there is little precipitation too. The managing director of the WDK predicts: “In the foreseeable future, North Africa, Australia, the Middle East or even the USA could overtake the countries that are currently the most important manufacturers of rubber.”