Petra Cullman is the Global Portfolio Director for Plastics & Rubber at Messe Düsseldorf, where she directs all events in the plastics and rubber industry, including the K Show. She previously served as the foreign representative for Messe Düsseldorf in Singapore, and helped produce the German pavilion for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Title image photography by Gianni Diliberto
Chris Lefteri: Plastics went through an unparalleled growth, as did other materials, in the middle of the last century but apart from 3D printing and more recently investigation into eco plastics and more energy efficient processes it hasn't been as dramatic. What changes have you seen in the plastics industry since you've been involved?
Petra Cullman: The exhibitors have always set trends at the show during the past editions and ever since actually. This is my fifth K since I have started working on this show and it has always been very fascinating and surprising what new developments come up at the show. For example, when I started, the plastic age had only just begun in aviation. Today it is hard to imagine aviation without plastics.
The trends during my first K years have been nano technology, bioplastics, wood-plastic-composites, organo sheets. The trends since K 2016 on the technology side are additive manufacturing, industry 4.0. And there are topics that are on the agenda since I started, such as lightweight construction and the whole field of climate protection, sustainability as well as energy- and resource efficiency – which will have a huge impact at this year's show: K 2019's major topic will be "Circular Economy".
Next to the major trends over the past few years a lot has happened on a smaller scale: We have had new developments on the material side. We have seen new materials or material combinations with improved qualities for new applications e.g. in the automotive sector. For the medical sector, construction, consumer goods and packaging – at every show, you see novelties regarding flexible packaging. Technology wise, we have seen a lot of improved functionality, development that helps to save material, save resources, and make the production process more efficient.
CL: What do you see as the role of the K show has within the plastics industry?
PC: By now 67 years since K was inaugurated, it has been the most important market place of the international plastics and rubber industries – and counting. Every three years exhibitors and visitors from all continents come together in Düsseldorf in order to present and experience at first hand leading edge developments and products from this dynamic and innovative industry. Exhibitors and visitors use the opportunities offered by the K flagship fair, a unique information and networking platform for innovators seeking new prospects. Only the K show features such a high density of international product launches and K is the driving force for innovation and international business
K is also a clear indicator of changes in the global market. Take participating countries for example: over the past few years, the number of participating Asian companies and the exhibition area that they have booked has been rising steadily. That mirrors that the Asia-Pacific economic zone is nowadays the largest and fastest-growing region in the global plastics industry.
Feedback from our exhibitors, visitors and journalists tells us that K is by far the most important show for the industry and that no one can afford or wants to miss out. They appreciate that at K they have the opportunity to see and experience the whole world of plastics and rubber. Visitors not only find new suppliers or business partners but they also find orientation for their business for the future. They tell us that K is the best platform to communicate with partners and customers and to exchange knowledge: what are the new developments, what are best practices, what are new strategies for current and future challenges? For the last K in 2016, visitors came from 161 one countries to see the state-of the art of the industry and what the future holds for them. We often hear that K is the place where innovation happens – and we agree on that! In addition, the community raises a claim to talk about relevant issues of their industry and – of course – to find solutions. The keyword today is "Circular Economy".
CL: It is your role to promote the plastics industry?
PC: K show is a partner of the industry and its most important market place, but we are not an integral part of the plastics value chain. To maintain the position of K as the leading market place for the global plastics and rubber industries we work very closely with the industry in committees with representatives of the industry alongside the entire value chain. Together we set the concept and we define the topics for the next show. Of course, at a trade fair exhibitors promote their products and interested parties come to make business. But the K trade fair also offers a platform where all players of the industry find room for communication, knowledge-exchange, education and where they find orientation. It is important that we take all aspects of the plastics and rubber industry into account.
The plastics industry is under much pressure today and the industry takes the debate in the media and public regarding public waste and microplastics in the environment very seriously. K 2019 addresses the current challenges of our era, primarily with regard to "plastics for sustainable development" and "circular economy". Leading manufacturers will make their knowledge and experience – regarding responsible handling and circular economy solutions for plastics – available to a global audience at K 2019. The supporting associations will also present their knowledge at K 2019, example giving, PlasticsEurope at the K special presentation "Plastics Shape the Future" or the "VDMA Circular Economy Forum".
It is not our role to promote the plastics industry. But it is our role to create the industry's major market place where all players of the industry have the opportunity to get together every three years and see what is new and what the future holds for the entire industry.
CL: You are in a unique position to have an overview of the entire industry. If you were to imagine in, let's say nine years time, what the plastics industry might be presenting at the K. What would you imagine that to be, if you were to look into the future?
PC: This is a very difficult question. First of all, speaking for Messe Düsseldorf, we would like to secure the position of K trade fair as the world's most important platform for the plastics and rubber industry in the future. Therefore we are in constant contact with the stakeholders of the global industry, be it key players, associations or scientists.
The industry is facing challenges right now. The public sees plastics as a main reason for many environmental issues the world is dealing with. It is true, polymer materials also present us with major challenges in terms of their whereabouts and handling after use, for example. But different players of the industry agree that it is mostly a problem of waste management. Plastics is a material of great value that can be produced and being re-used in a sustainable manner and should ideally be fully recyclable to produce high-quality products. However, this requires a material design that per se guarantees a high recycling rate and maximum yield of high-quality recyclates. And the industry comes up with solutions. Recycling products are increasingly becoming an alternative and an important raw material for new plastic products.
I am positive that solutions will be presented at K in the coming years that will help us to actively counter the great challenges of our time and of the future. These include, for example, population growth and demographic change, globalization, climate change, energy supply, medical progress and technological change. Plastics can contribute to a positive development in these fields.
Take, for example, the topic of mobility or e-mobility, keyword: lightweight construction: plastics help to make cars lighter and more economical. There is potential for plastic as a material in powertrains, interiors and exteriors as well as car bodies. Here, plastics can make a significant contribution to energy savings as construction and functional material.
Mega trends are and will remain sustainability , resource efficiency and digitization. And they are linked. To drive sustainability, companies are looking at the entire value chain: alternative raw materials, high effective and efficient materials, integrated processes for improved functionality and efficiency. Low-emission, energy-saving and efficient methods and technologies are in high demand, as are intelligent, high-performance materials that can be easily adapted to the application at hand without placing an additional burden on the environment or using up extra time and resources. This complexity can only be achieved through digitization, which is why this issue will also continue to play an important role in the future.
CL: Do you get a sense that the plastics industry is interested in approaching designers, to raise awareness of plastic as a material? Do you see that as a trend?
PC: Yes, absolutely. Product design is very important. So far, the main focus has been on functionality and on appearance. Now, recyclability is taken more and more into account as early as the product development stage. And this requires, I mentioned it before, a material design that per se guarantees a high recycling rate and maximum yield of high-quality recyclates. Especially when it comes to raw materials producers, they work very closely with industrial designers in order to develop enhanced materials that allow new applications or even more sophisticated products. Some of them have dedicated design centers to work closely with industrial designers. The Industry is fully aware of the important role that industrial designers play.
CL: And you see more of these companies, looking to design?
PC: Definitely. Just yesterday I talked to a raw materials supplier who had developed a totally new material with enhanced qualities that can be used to print sport shoes. It was really impressive.
And I think a lot of raw materials suppliers will be coming up with innovative ideas – always in the context of how to produce, use and reuse it in a sustainable way. That is a big issue for everybody at the moment. Another supplier is producing a material for a sports company in order to have 100% no-waste sports shoe. It is produced but then it will be taken back by the retailer to be completely up-cycled again. So yes, there is definitely a market here.
Recognized throughout the world as a leading authority on materials and their application in design, Chris Lefteri is one of the most important materials experts working in his field. For over a decade his studio work and publications have been pivotal in changing the way designers and the materials industry consider materials. In 2001 he published the first of eight books on materials and their application in design, which have been translated into six languages. These books have led the change in the way designers view and use materials. Subsequently his studio, Chris Lefteri Design, has worked with bluechip corporations and major design studios across Europe, the US and Asia implementing a broad range of strategies for effective materials integration in the design process.