Fittingly, the plastics industry seems to be on the verge of remolding itself and its centre of excellence.
This time, for an activity that is known as an ‘enabling industry’, hopefully the model and structure is got right. As a $3.8 billion business, for something that operates below the radar, it has the potential to be much more enabling.
Because the industry has been here before — though not with as wide an industry group as is on the verge of coming together.
A Plastic Centre of Excellent research facility was opened in late 2008 on Auckland University’s Tamaki campus, boosted by about $5 million of government support through Technology NZ and NZTE, and matched by plastics industry funding.
The centre was supposed to be a giant group hug of mutual benefit.
However, the brand spanking new facility with state of the art machines and technology never properly got off the ground. The R&D, and alliance and relationships building initiative was never a complete success, and didn’t obtain buy-in from the plastic industry’s largest players.
The lack of critical mass, and distrust, resulted in a facility that has lain unused for the past couple of years.
A new collaborative initiative, led by Industrial Research has been pulled together. IRL has a composite materials team that could use and contribute to PCE MkII.
In fact, it is more than a Mark II version, and is to be renamed the Polymer Alliance, reflecting both a material and geographic breadth and depth.
Other participants include Auckland University, fellow CRI Scion (which is researching heavily into naturally-derived polymers), Otago University, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and F&P Appliances, and Clariant (among others).
Clever plastic products, underpinned by design, have the potential to be core components of other New Zealand exports, as well as be exports in their own right.
The Polymer Alliance can help grow the number and size of the current 400+ plastics and polymers companies in New Zealand, by producing innovations that give the industry comparative and perhaps competitive (if an economy of scale could be achieve) advantage.
Over 8,000 employees helped convert more than 216,000 tonnes of raw materials into products in 2010.
The potential to use new materials, many based on renewable raw materials, is an avenue that the Polymer Alliance will undoubtedly wish to pursue.
The Alliance’s (re)timing is apt and couldn’t come at a better moment. Even as China has taken over the commodity and generic end of the market, through creating more specialised products, the NZ industry has continued to grow.
To maintain and even exceed its present growth, it needs some profitable, new ideas to commercialise.
The Polymer Alliance is an opportunity to revitalise an industry, a chance to make polymers NZ-centric.
The sooner the collaborative agreement is signed, the better.