Synthetic Rubber

SIC 2822

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing synthetic rubber by polymerization or copolymerization. An elastomer, for the purpose of this classification, is a rubber-like material capable of vulcanization, such as copolymers of butadiene and styrene, or butadiene and acrylonitrile, polybutadienes, chloroprene rubbers, and isobutylene-isoprene copolymers. Butadiene copolymers containing less than 50 percent butadiene are classified in SIC 2821: Plastics Materials and Resins. Natural chlorinated rubbers and cyclized rubbers are considered as semifinished products and are classified in SIC 3069: Fabricated Rubber Products, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

Production of synthetic rubber on a commercial scale began in the United States during the 1930s, although natural rubber has been used since the early 1800s for multiple applications. The United States assumed an early lead in the development and production of vulcanizable elastomers, a position that it maintained throughout the 2000s. By the late 2000s, consumption of synthetic rubber had surpassed that of natural rubber. The 12.8 million tons of synthetic rubber produced worldwide in 2008 accounted for 56 percent of all rubber production for that year, according to the International Rubber Study Group.

Synthetic rubber has important advantages over natural materials. Among its most beneficial characteristics are its great resistance to corrosion caused by fluids and gases, its very poor electrical conductivity, and its ability to flex and then regain its original shape. Because of the endless variety of compounds that can be created, synthetic rubber has been used increasingly as a substitute for more expensive, lower performance natural materials. Besides displacing woods, metals, and ceramics in many traditional applications, rubber has fostered the creation of completely new products.

The synthetic rubber industry represents about 8 percent of the entire U.S. synthetic materials manufacturing sector. Plastics (see SIC 2821: Plastics Materials and Resins) and manmade fibers (see SIC 2824: Manmade Organic Fibers, Except Cellulosic) are the other synthetics. The synthetic materials industry is considered part of the overall U.S. chemical industry, holding about 25 percent of the segment. Natural rubber is derived from rubber trees and other organic sources, and its production and processing is not included in this industrial classification.

Organization and Structure

Revenue for the synthetic rubber industry reached $9.1 billion in 2008, up from $7.0 billion in 2006, according to Supplier Relations US LLC. Despite its relative economic insignificance, however, the industry is an integral part of the U.S. and global industrial machine. Rubber not only serves a vital role in transportation industries but also is an important production material for medical supplies, packaging and sealing devices, construction equipment, and other goods. Furthermore, U.S. producers supply about one-quarter of total world rubber consumption.

Competition and Markets.
The industry is highly consolidated, with only about 152 firms competing in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Geographically, California and Texas have the most establishments, according to figures from Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). Other states with significant numbers of firms in the industry included Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York.

Tire and inner tube manufacturers consumed about 40 percent of industry output in the 2000s. However, the remainder of the rubber market was highly fragmented and represented by a vast array of fabricated rubber products. Paper mills and floor covering producers each use about 5 percent of all rubber absorbed domestically, while about 2 percent of output is required to make hoses and belts. Adhesives, gaskets, sealants, and packing devices utilize about 5 percent of production. Other popular uses of rubber include the manufacture of sporting goods, medical supplies, footwear, paint, printing ink, chemical preparations, communication equipment, batteries, and cord. Outside of North America, tires and inner tubes represent about 60 percent of rubber demand.

Rubber Production.
Synthetic rubber is produced by chemically rearranging molecules in a process called polymerization, during which the molecules link up in very long chains. The polymer exists as a soft, tacky thermoplastic, which can be remelted and manipulated. The thermoplastic resin is then treated with heat and chemicals to create a thermoset, a compound that cannot be remelted to be formed. This process, called vulcanization, is what contributes to the resilience and elasticity of rubber compounds, physical properties that have earned rubbers the name elastomers. Most elastomers are made using petroleum, although potatoes and grains, coke (made from coal), limestone, salt, or sulfur also may be used.

Endless varieties of rubbers are produced, each of which offers different physical properties and comes in a variety of grades. Different rubbers are created during the production process, for instance, by integrating additives, adding processing chemicals, or creating alloys with natural rubber or other thermoplastics. Numerous chemical processing agents include accelerators, activators, vulcanizing agents, antidegradants, antioxidants, flame retardants, and stabilizers. Additives include reinforcement fibers, fillers, colorants, and catalysts, such as carbon black and sulfur.

Commodity Elastomers.
The two major elastomer divisions are commodity and specialty. Commodity elastomers, which account for the bulk of industry sales, are available at relatively low prices from several manufacturers. The most popular commodity rubber is styrene butadiene rubber (SBR), which represented about 25 percent of total output (by value). SBR is used primarily in tires and inner tubes, although it also is found in industrial applications such as carpet backing, nonwoven materials, and paper coatings.

Polybutadiene, the third largest industry segment, is also used mostly to create tires and treads. In addition, it is an important production material for hoses and belts. Ethylene-propylene elastomers (EP) account for approximately 11 percent of shipments. EP is used in the construction supply industry for such products as roof membranes and foundation sealants. It also is used as an impact modifier for plastic resins. Additional uses include oil viscosity additives and various auto parts, such as gaskets and seals, hoses, belts, and tubing. Other commodity thermoset elastomers include nitrile, butyl, polyisoprene, polychloroprene, and silicone.

Specialty Elastomers.
Specialty elastomers are the second division of the synthetic rubber industry. Specialty elastomers offer enhanced performance characteristics, are typically more expensive, and are sold by fewer competitors than commodity elastomers. The two main categories of specialty rubbers are silicones and fluorocarbons. Silicones are used to make vehicle mechanical parts and sealants, adhesives for construction, and electronic products. Fluorocarbons are used for O-rings, seals, and gaskets, as well as and for high-tech aerospace, automotive, electrical, and petrochemical applications.

In addition to thermosets, the specialty category also encompasses a category of rubbers called thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs). TPEs are often more economical to produce and easier to process than thermosets. TPEs are categorized as styrenics, polyolefins, elastomeric alloys, polyurethanes, copolyesters, and polyamides. They are often used to create high-performance adhesives, to modify plastics during the production process, and in various consumer goods applications. TPEs provide benefits associated with recycling, and typically offer greater durability, hardness, and chemical resistance.

Background and Development

Natural rubber has been in use since at least the fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus witnessed Haitian natives playing games with balls "made of the gum of a tree." The first record of rubber used for purposes other than recreation was made by explorer F. Juan D. Torquemada in 1615. He saw Indians brush rubber on their cloaks as waterproofing and witnessed them compressing rubber in earthen molds to create footwear and bottles. Rubber was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century from the East Indies and used to rub out lead pencil marks, which led to the term "rubber." Rubber was later transported to Europe to make raincoats and thread.

A recognizable natural rubber industry evolved in the United States by the 1830s, as numerous factories sprouted along the eastern seaboard. U.S. producers pioneered many important processing machines that furthered industry growth. For example, Edward M. Chaffe invented a rubber milling and rolling machine in 1836. Chaffe's machine, which was nicknamed "The Monster" and weighed 30 tons, was completed in 1837 at a cost of $30,000. The tendency of rubber to soften with heat and harden with cold led to another important industry breakthrough in the late 1830s. Charles Goodyear's discovery of vulcanization in 1839 lead to the use of rubber in many demanding mechanical applications.

Scientists realized the potential benefits of creating a synthetic replacement for natural rubber and began to search for a formula in the early 18000s. In 1826, English scientist Michael Faraday was one of the first to analyze rubber chemically. It was not until 1910, however, that Russian S.V. Lebedev polymerized butadiene to produce the first synthetic rubber. This breakthrough, combined with processing and vulcanizing technologies developed during the 1800s, was the beginning of a new era for the rubber industry.

By the 1930s, synthetic rubbers were produced on a commercial scale only in Russia and Germany. World War I and World War II created opportunities for synthetic advances, as countries on all continents sought to sever their dependence on foreign natural rubber supplies. The United States, which was traditionally dependent on South American suppliers for natural rubber, shifted into overdrive during World War II in its quest for an inexhaustible synthetic supply.

World War II.
World output of synthetic rubber was estimated at 10,000 tons in 1935 and 72,000 tons by 1939, with Germany and Russia producing all but a small fraction. By the end of World War II, however, global production had skyrocketed to well over 1 million tons per year, and the United States supplied the lion's share of the output. Between 1939 and 1945, U.S. production of synthetic rubber rose from a negligible experimental yield to about 820,000 tons per year. Correspondingly, the U.S. natural rubber consumption declined during the 1940s. In 1939, about 0.3 percent of all rubber used in the United States was synthetic. By 1950 that share had grown to 43 percent, and the United States was using a whopping 55 percent of total global elastomer output.

Although large quantities of synthetic rubber continued to be produced after World War II, natural rubbers continued to dominate the market because of their superior physical characteristics. Advances in the use of recycled natural rubber boosted its popularity. However, in 1953 German chemists Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta discovered a polymerization process that resulted in a synthetic rubber virtually identical in molecular structure to that of natural rubber. Commercial production of cis-1, 4-polyisoprene started immediately in the United States, which became the dominant supplier for many war-ravaged European countries.

Advances in additives augmented the proliferation of synthetic rubber in the 1950s and 1960s. New reinforcing materials allowed manufacturers to strengthen synthetics and reduce production costs, while simultaneously achieving advanced performance. Asbestos, hard clay, limestone, and carbon black were among these fillers. Similarly, plasticizers and softeners enabled producers to develop synthetics with physical properties superior to many natural rubbers. Curing and vulcanizing agents, accelerators, and age-resistors all led to the substitution of synthetics for natural rubbers and other organic materials.

In addition to advances in quality and variety, synthetic rubber also benefited from simultaneous breakthroughs in processing and molding technology used in other industries. Furthermore, the postwar U.S. economic expansion generated huge demand growth. Most importantly, the staggering growth of the automobile and truck industries during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in a vast market for tires, inner tubes, belts, and hoses. Construction and consumer markets ballooned as well. By 1960, global production of synthetic rubber stood at more than 2 million tons a year. The United States produced about 1.5 million tons and used more than 40 percent of global output. Although natural rubber continued to hold over 50 percent of the world rubber market in 1960, synthetics supplied about 70 percent of U.S. rubber demand.

While the rubber industry continued to grow during the 1960s and 1970s, it clearly surpassed its stage of rapid expansion by the 1970s. Even the 1960s showed evidence of industry maturation, such as consolidation. The number of competitors manufacturing tires, for instance, plummeted from about 60 in the late 1940s to just a handful of big producers by the 1970s. Other pressures challenged the U.S. industry during the 1970s. Spiraling petroleum prices during the second half of the decade dampened industry profitability. Popular synthetics like styrene-butadiene, that were once cutting-edge materials, became low-margin commodities. Foreign competition also began to erode U.S. global dominance.

The 1980s and 1990s.
By 1980, U.S. synthetic rubber output was about 1.8 million metric tons a year. This represented a slight increase over production levels of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, falling energy prices and an increase in demand during the early 1980s boosted industry output and profitability. Although the value of shipments rose less than 1 percent between 1982 and 1983, the cost of production materials fell about 3 percent as output jumped nearly 8 percent. Furthermore, in 1984 output value climbed over 8 percent as demand steadily increased, and revenue surpassed $3.4 billion.

After 1985, overall U.S. rubber output stagnated. Despite a healthy economy, U.S. synthetic rubber manufacturers were hurt by several factors, including increased imports of automobile, tire, and rubber products; the trend toward smaller cars that used smaller tires; and the rising use of long-lasting radial tires. Exports from Southeast Asia, as well as other regions of the world, also were cutting into demand from other market segments. Between 1982 and 1990, total industry output grew 22 percent, from about 1.8 million to 2.2 million tons.

Despite sluggish demand in traditional commodity synthetic rubbers, such as SBR, the industry managed to maintain a fairly strong revenue growth rate of about 5 percent during the 1980s. This was accomplished through the development and sales of improved compounds and specialty rubbers. Production volumes of polybutadiene and ethylene-propylene, for instance, grew a respective 44 percent and 89 percent between 1982 and 1991. Specialty thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs), grew from a negligible share of the market in the early 1980s to account for about 8 percent of domestic industry consumption by 1991.

Although U.S. manufacturer's share of the global rubber market declined in the 1980s and early 1990s, they enjoyed solid export growth as foreign consumption of rubber escalated slowly but steadily. Despite sluggish domestic markets, exports grew between 3 and 5 percent a year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The demand for proprietary high-tech rubbers by overseas consumers was particularly strong.

Synthetic rubber manufacturers were able to buoy earnings throughout the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the domestic and global economic recession that began in 1989 and lingered through 1993 dampened industry profitability. Shipment volume declined 0.03 percent in 1989, 0.07 percent in 1990, and over 4 percent in 1991, while plant utilization dropped to a depressing 68 percent. Industry revenue grew about 1 percent a year during this time.

Demand by the auto industry, which uses 70 percent of SBR, slowed in 1992 and 1993. Overall production of SBR dropped to about 850,000 tons by 1992.

High-Tech and Thermoplastic Opportunities.
To sustain profits in the mid-1990s, producers looked at smaller industry segments for expansion, particularly TPEs. Thermoplastics appealed to consumers because of the combination of the rubber-like flexibility of thermoset rubbers and the processing versatility of plastic, as well as the ability to be recycled and often lower production costs. Consequently, worldwide consumption of TPEs was expected to grow into the early twenty-first century from 680,000 tons in 1992 to 1.1 million tons by 2000.

Besides cannibalizing market share held by thermoset rubbers, TPEs created entirely new markets for the industry. Styrenic TPEs, for example, offered significant potential for use as an asphalt modifier to keep roofing and roadways from cracking. High-tech niche TPEs were making inroads into industries such as medical, construction, and food packaging. New TPEs, for example, were used in the plumbing industry to deliver drinking water that met strict new federal standards. Other TPEs were developed to make everything from ski boots and swimwear to auto body panels that could be painted without a primer coat.

Like TPEs, high-performance thermosets promised to buoy the earnings of the most savvy of producers. High-performance nitrile rubbers were used in applications that required heat, chemical, and abrasion resistance.

Environment.
One of the greatest obstacles to success for synthetic rubber producers in the late twentieth century was environmental controls. The overall chemical industry was by far the largest polluting industry in the United States, and rubber producers contributed significantly to that reputation. Besides emitting large doses of hazardous chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the air during the production process, rubber producers were charged with creating end-user products that would not degrade. Furthermore, rubber manufacturers suffered from environmental controls that affected their consumers, such as fuel efficiency and emissions standards that encouraged the production of smaller cars that used smaller tires. Environmental mandates forced rubber manufacturers to bring their production facilities into compliance with federal and state rules. Such retrofitting cost many companies millions of dollars.

In an effort to reduce criticism of nondegradable rubber waste, the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) took a leading role in reclamation and recycling efforts during the 1980s and 1990s. Although thermoset elastomers cannot be truly recycled, efforts were made to convert rubber waste to other uses, such as highway asphalt production and fuel for energy plants. Tires, which used about 60 percent of elastomer output, were the focus of such endeavors. In 1990, about 8 percent of the 240 million tires discarded annually were reused, and by 1992, that had increased to 24 percent.

Rubber Rebounds.
An economic recovery of industrialized nations, an upsurge in automobile production, and the related demand for tires, belts and hoses fueled increased demand and consumption for synthetic rubber during the late 1990s. Consumption of synthetic rubber increased marginally faster than natural rubber consumption in global marketplaces during the 1990s, due in part to a shortage of natural rubber at the end of the decade. The major increases in synthetic rubber use were in Asia, central Europe, and eastern Europe.

U.S. manufacturers struggled during the early 2000s to compete with less expensive imports due to global overproduction capacity and a strong U.S. dollar. Europe, in particular, led the United States in technological advances in synthetic rubber processing, and Asia expanded production capabilities. In a 2003 issue of European Rubber Journal, David Shaw noted: "[U.S.] buyers will face a serious dilemma of whether to buy from Europe and Asia, in order to get maximum quality for minimum price, with the real possibility of putting their U.S.-based suppliers out of business."

In November 2006, the European Commission determined that five manufacturers of synthetic rubber violated European antitrust laws by engaging in a price-fixing scheme between 1996 and 2002. The members of that cartel--Eni SpA (Italy), Royal Dutch Shell plc (The Netherlands), Dow Chemical Co. (The United States), Unipetrol AS (Czech Republic), and Trade-Stomil Sp z.o.o. (Poland)--were fined 519 million euros (approximately $628 million), the second-largest antitrust penalty levied by the European Commission. In February 2007, Dow and Royal Dutch Shell filed respective appeals to reduce their share of the fines.

Current Conditions

Global rubber consumption grew for the eighth consecutive year in 2008 when it reached 23.4 million metric tons, according to the International Rubber Study Group (IRSG). Worldwide, synthetic rubber outperformed natural rubber. Consumption of synthetic rubber leaped from 607,000 metric tons in 2005 to 12.5 million metric tons in 2008, whereas worldwide consumption of natural rubber fell to 10.0 million metric tons in 2008. In North America, overall rubber consumption dropped to 3.5 million metric tons. Nevertheless, at 1.8 million metric tons, synthetic rubber accounted for the larger share of consumption in North America, compared to approximately 1.1 million metric tons of natural rubber. Styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) continued to be the most common type of synthetic rubber in the early twenty-first century.

The automotive market accounts for nearly 75 percent of the rubber industry, both natural and synthetic. According to the IRSG, tires utilize the largest share of rubber, nearly 60 percent of the rubber industry, with other automotive parts accounting for the remaining 10 to 15 percent. The Rubber Manufacturers Association reported that 41 percent of a tire's composition is rubber, and natural rubber accounts for 40 percent of that share. This dependency on natural rubber leaves tire companies vulnerable to rising prices of raw materials. In 2008, prices for natural rubber reached $1.47-$1.48 per pound, representing an all-time high. Some manufacturers sought methods of increasing the share of synthetic rubber in tires in order to be able to withstand such increases without raising prices to customers. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, for example, announced that it developed a method to substitute 15 percent of its natural rubber usage with synthetic rubber without impacting tire performance.

The recycling of scrap tires, formerly a point of contention between rubber manufacturers and environmentalists, was fully developed in the late 2000s. The Rubber Manufacturers Association reported that in 2007, more than 89 percent of disposed tires were recycled, up from 11 percent in 1990. Moreover, the number of scrap tires in stockpiles fell to 128 million in 2007, down from 275 million in 2003 and 1 billion in 1990. Tire-derived fuel, (TDF) which is the leading use for scrap tires, recycles 155 million tires each year and serves as a supplemental fuel for cement kilns, electric utilities, and pulp and paper mills. Civil engineering projects, such as road and landfill construction, used nearly 50 million tires in 2006. Another use is ground rubber, which recycles more than 30 million tires in such products as athletic and recreational surfaces, rubber-modified asphalt, carpet underlay, and dock bumpers.

Industry Leaders

Most of the major players in the U.S. synthetic rubber industry are large, diversified chemical companies, producing a wide variety of products not limited to elastomers. Houston-based Shell Chemical Co., a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell PLC, produces dozens of types of chemicals, including butadiene, the primary ingredient of SBR. Annual revenues for Shell Chemical reached $1.06 billion in the mid-2000s.

Equistar Chemicals LP is a subsidiary of the LyondellBasell Chemical Company. Although Equistar's primary product is ethylene, its other products include butadiene. Revenues for Equistar reached $13.0 billion in 2008. Also active in the synthetic rubber industry were Texas Petrochemicals Inc., which had sales of $1.7 billion in 2008 and manufactured such C4 hydrocarbons as butadiene, and GenCorp Inc., headquartered in Ranchero Cordova, California, with 2008 sales of $742.3 million.

Workforce

Despite production increases, the number of U.S. workers employed in the synthetic rubber manufacturing industry declined in the early twenty-first century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007, employment was 9,794, down from 11,800 in 1982.

America and the World

The United States has gradually lost the dominance of world rubber markets that it enjoyed in the 1950s, when U.S. synthetic rubber producers supplied more than 50 percent of global demand. Nevertheless, the U.S. elastomer industry remains the largest, most advanced, and most productive in the world. In addition, the United States remained a strong net exporter of synthetic rubber, outpacing imports by nearly two to one.

In 2006, China surpassed the United States to become the world's leading consumer of synthetic rubber. Consumption reached 5.3 million metric tons, which almost doubled 2000 figures. Synthetic rubber accounted for 3.1 million metric tons of total consumption. Increased production by Chinese manufacturers of footwear, tubing, and other rubber products accounted for this increase, as well as production by foreign automotive and tire companies operating in China. In 2008 China produced an estimated 380 million tires, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. Asia as a whole produced 12.8 million metric tons of synthetic rubber in 2008, as compared to North America's 2.4 million metric tons and the European Union's 2.5 million metric tons.

Research and Technology

Companies in the synthetic rubber industry are heavily dependent on research and development to remain competitive. For example, the average rubber manufacturer in the late 1980s invested more than four times more money per employee in research and development than did the average U.S. manufacturer. This represented 5 to 7 percent of industry sales. Moreover, in 1990 the industry funneled 9 percent, or $380 billion, of revenue into capital investments.

Technological advances in regulatory compliance were essentially a reaction to the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act, the Clean Air Act, and a multiplicity of other state and federal controls. Although producers made large investments in new equipment and compounds that would allow them to produce rubber with fewer hazardous emissions, they also focused on the development of recyclable rubbers that would create less aftermarket waste. The most important of these was recyclable TPEs. Besides offering many advantageous physical characteristics, TPEs were increasingly being used as a substitute for many nondegradable thermoset rubbers.

Progress in the recovery of thermoset rubber waste advanced at a slow pace. Industry participants continued to search for economically viable uses for the nondegradable compounds. Elastomer refuse was used in several civil engineering functions as well as for asphalt modification and waste-to-energy applications. For example, it was being used to create road embankments, artificial reefs, and as a replacement for gravel in water cleansing systems. Some recycled rubber was being used as filler for tires and to make low-tech items like mud guards for trucks.

In addition to demands for more environmentally friendly rubber products, elastomer manufacturers were under constant pressure to create high-performance, cost-efficient products. While huge breakthroughs in tire longevity were achieved during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, producers in the early 1990s and 2000s introduced much better products.

Many breakthroughs occurred in the area of specialty elastomers. One such example was hydrogenated nitrile. The substance offered superior thermo and mechanical properties while allowing manufacturers to meet environmental emissions requirements more easily. Hydrogenated nitrile can withstand temperatures of more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, compared to normal nitrile, which remains stable only to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

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