Plastic Component Revenue Rising in Cell Phone Market

by IHS Inc.

Although Apple Inc.’s iPhone line is a latecomer to the plastic party – with the company recently introducing its first polycarbonate-enclosed model – the use of plastic resin in the cell phone market already is a multi-billion-dollar business, with tremendous growth expected in the coming years.

The global market for molded plastic components used in cell phones is set to amount to $3.5 billion in 2013, up from $3.3 billion in 2012, according to IHS Chemical and technology research from IHS Inc., El Segundo, CA. Plastic component revenue in cell phones will continue to rise in the future, growing by 27 percent from 2013 to reach $4.5 billion in 2017. This represents a $1 billion increase in just four years.

In terms of weight, total plastic resin usage in all cell phones – smartphones and other mobile handsets included – will increase to 336,000 metric tons in 2017, up from 282,000 metric tons in 2013.

Plastic is fantastic for smartphone makers

Apple’s decision to use plastic for the 5c’s enclosure was partly driven by a desire to offer a lower-priced smartphone that cost less to manufacture than previous members of the iPhone line. Plastic also allowed Apple to offer iPhones in a greater variety of colors than ever before. This push toward reduced cost and greater product differentiation reflects a larger trend in the cell phone market. Meanwhile, OEMs are attempting to differentiate their products by creating smartphones that are aesthetically appealing to their consumers.

Plastic plethora

The cell phone market offers opportunities for a large variety of plastic resins including ABS, polycarbonate, nylon and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). ABS and polycarbonate are both attractive materials for exterior components due to their strength and aesthetic appeal. Polycarbonate cell phone housing may have a chemical coating to improve its scratch-resistance.

In addition to enclosures, plastics are used in a wide range of cell phone applications ranging from mounting brackets and display frames to display backlight guides, insulator sheets and vibration cushions. And as low-end smartphones start to become increasingly adopted in the emerging markets of the world, IHS projects that plastics will increasingly be used for a wide range of mechanical and optical components in the mobile handset and smartphone market. IHS forecasts that ABS and polycarbonate demand for cell phone components will grow at compound annual growth rates of 7 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, through 2017.

Plastic takes over in electronics

The rising use of plastics in cell phones is part of a much larger trend of increasing utilization of the material in a wide range of electronic products, including consumer and computing devices like LCD TVs, PCs, printers and media tablets, and appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and microwave ovens. IHS has determined that the electronics industry will consume nearly 16 million metric tons of plastic resin in 2017, up from 12.8 million in 2012.

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