August 2018

Covestro makes thermoplastic composites available on Alibaba

Three days after placing an order on 1688.com, an online platform of Alibaba and the biggest business-to-business digital marketplace in China, Niu Baode received a package from Covestro. Inside it was 1kg of extremely thin carbon fiber-reinforced polycarbonate composite tapes, named Maezio™, neatly rolled over a plastic reel while giving off a smooth and restrained carbon look thanks to its uni-directional fiber orientation. “It’s beautiful,” he couldn’t help saying to himself.
Maezio™ thermoplastic composites from Covestro are available on Alibaba.

But it is about more than the looks - it has made a world of difference for the 40-year-old entrepreneur.

Founder of a small Chinese company that makes semi-finished composite sheets and customized parts for sporting equipment, Niu has been looking for a simple and efficient way to purchase continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) composites, which he further processes into semi-finished goods. He didn’t have many options though. Distributors? Lack of transparency and consistency. Buying directly from manufacturers? A company of his size - less than 20 people - is at the long tail end of the distribution scale so he can‘t always get what he needs.

“A small company like us relies all the more on speed and agility to serve our customers. Being able to purchase directly from leading manufacturers like Covestro on an online channel at flexible quantities means a lot to our success in the market,” says Niu.

In a country where digitalization and e-commerce are changing virtually every aspect of consumers’ lives, it’s not completely surprising for material suppliers to ride the digital wave. However, selling advanced composites online raises many question marks. Unlike commodity polymers, the value chain for composites, in particular thermoplastics, still has some gaps. Can an online platform with a reliable supply of materials help fill in some of those gaps? Do the molders and processors on the 1688 platform have the capability to take thermoplastics to the downstream?

“We don’t know answers to these questions but what we do know is that we have to find it out through tests and trials,” says David Hartmann, one of the two Co-CEOs of Covestro’s CFRTP business. “1688 provides a channel for us to test our assumptions with the hundreds of relatively small customers out there, and learn on the go.”

For Niu, it couldn’t have come at a better time. He is one of the many market players who believe in the growing importance of thermoplastics in next-generation applications like electric vehicles and consumer electronics. And he wants to be part of that growth.

A material expert in the plastics processing industry, Niu sees many benefits from the polycarbonate matrix because of its light weight, high strength, good surface quality, and the ability to be processed fast and recycled. At the same time however, it’s viscous, gooey and impregnating carbon fiber with polycarbonates is simply hard. Being able to source CFRTP tapes changes the game. It means people like Niu can rely on the quality raw materials from Covestro and focus on developing processing knowhow, thus lower entry costs and barriers for the vast majority of startup companies in the composites scene.

“We believe material technologies are the most powerful when they are accessible, so we’re excited to bring Maezio™ thermoplastic composites into the hands of value chain partners,” says David.

Niu is looking forward to making some prototypes with the sample tapes from Covestro. A drone is in his mind. He also plans to visit Covestro to learn more about the material and explore opportunities for further collaboration.

For more information, visit maezio.covestro.com or email cfrtp@covestro.com.

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