It's Not Just Steel Springing Back

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My curiosity as to why materials like plastic and aluminum were having a hey-day at the same time as steel, began with my sedan and a bout of company pride. I tried to put on my official 90.3 Ideastream car magnet on my bumper and it fell right off. So I tried it on the trunk, and it also fell off. Finally I was able to find a spot right behind the back passenger side window where my magnetic sticker would finally stick...telling me that there were many parts of my car that were actually plastic or other materials besides steel.

"Probably about 50-percent of a car is plastic, today," says Bryan Osborne, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Venture Plastics, Inc., based in Newton Falls, Ohio. He says demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles is behind the increased amount of plastic in today's cars.

"That includes under the engine. Manifolds, fuel rails, throttle bodies, your entire interior now is mainly plastic. Spoilers that are on cars….in fact, all of your chrome parts on a vehicle are actually plastic parts that get chromed, they're not metal."

So today’s car is a far cry from your grandparents’ Oldsmobile, materially speaking. The American Chemistry Council says nearly 400 pounds of material in a light vehicle today are plastic, 20 times more than the amount used in a car made 50 years ago.

Walking through Venture Plastic's main manufacturing plant, Osborne points out injection-molded components being made for cars. These include some curved, triangular panels.

"These parts go on the interior of the vehicle. They're down near the sides of your seat," he explains.

Osborne says in 2009, roughly 8.5 million cars were made in the U.S. But with the recession's effects easing up, it's projected that 15.5 million vehicles will be made next year, back to pre-recession levels.

Bill Carteaux, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), agrees things are looking brighter.

"Plastics tend to be -- as I'm sure steel is -- a leading indicator of the economy," says Carteaux. "We certainly started to see things slowing down in 2008, and 2009 was horrible. But from `09-10, the overall plastic shipments in this country were up about 5-percent. We went from $320-billion to $341-billion in shipments."

Carteaux says energy is helping his industry. Wind turbines, fuel cells, and solar cells use plastic. And natural gas drilling uses polyethylene pipe -- a durable, corrosion-resistant plastic -- for transmitting gas, as well as for other applications. Carteaux says sales have steadily climbed since the end of the recession, including a 30-percent increase last year.

"We'll continue to see some nice gains as we continue to get the shale gas that's out there today,” Carteaux adds.

Energy needs have also sparked sales and production for aluminum, says Heidi Brock. She's President of the Aluminum Association, based in Arlington, Virginia.

"The electrical wire market has increased over 28-percent year over year through April of 2012. Aluminum is an excellent conductor, and it's being used in commercial building wire and electrical transmission wire applications."

Brock adds that the rebounding auto industry has also helped aluminum producers. She says right now, about 340-lbs. of a car is aluminum, and that amount will double by 2025, due to the Obama Administration's new corporate average fuel economy standards announced last year.

One local company that makes auto parts is Ohio Aluminum Industries in Cleveland. They make suspension parts and front engine covers for Chryler’s sporty Viper vehicle. Vice President of Sales, Steve Swarthout, says 6,000 Vipers are being made this year. But he says the real driver for aluminum is the aerospace industry. His company makes components for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A380, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

"In January 2010 we booked 2-million (dollars) in sales. Just that one month," says Swarthout. "And from last year, we were up 10-percent. And this year, we're going to be up another 30-percent. Basically, Boeing and Airbus can't build planes fast enough. Their orders are going through the roof."

It's a good problem to have, especially when Ohio Aluminum Industries had to lay off 20-percent of its workforce in 2009. Now they've regained their workforce and added people, to keep up with demand.

Aerospace needs have also benefited one of the most durable yet expensive materials, titanium. Brett Paddock of the International Titanium Association says titanium has the weight of aluminum and the strength of steel, but it's 30 times the cost of steel, roughly.

Paddock adds titanium rebounded quickly after the recession due to a spike in orders for airframes, as well as specialized medical and industrial devices. Last year, 108,000 metric tons of titanium were produced and shipped in the U.S., compared to roughly 65,000 in 2009. Paddock says the forecast is good, as both Boeing and Airbus are expected to keep production at maximum capacity for the next ten years.

"We're optimistic with the continuation of the aviation, medical, petro-chemical markets, that we'll continue to have slight increases," says Mitch Bowers. He's the company president of G & S Titanium, based in Wooster, Ohio. G & S is a "job shop" that makes a variety of titanium products, ranging from springs and fasteners for the Airbus, to shrapnel used in Sidewinder missiles. Bowers expects sales to increase 10-percent this year. His best year since the recession was 2010, when sales went up 57-percent. The two years before that saw little activity from his customers.

"They might not have produced as much product as well. They were working down their inventory, as the economy went along."

The titanium, aluminum, and plastic industries may not evoke the same gritty, Rust Belt romanticism that steel does, but they are also beneficiaries of a revived manufacturing base. And their prospects look just as promising for the time being.

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