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Polymer Science and Engineering: The Shifting Research Frontiers
countries (Chemical & Engineering News, 1993, pp. 50, 75). Further, over half of the 25 companies receiving the largest number of U.S. patents in 1991 were based outside the United States (Business Week , 1993b, p. 57). Both patterns indicate strong challenges to U.S. supremacy in the polymer area.
Another area of concern is the U.S. polymer processing industry. Film, fiber, and molded parts constitute three of the largest uses of polymers and the portion of the market that enjoys the greatest value added. However, the equipment required to process the raw polymer into these forms is produced largely in foreign countries, primarily Germany and Japan, and is then purchased by U.S. suppliers and sold under their own label. The Institut für Kunststoffverarbeitung in Aachen, Germany, for example, teaches polymer processing at all levels and develops equipment and processing methods in cooperation with the large German chemical companies. Will nationalism and regional trade advantages combine to give the large chemical companies in such countries a competitive advantage in developing new polymer applications through close association with the equipment manufacturers? Will such developments be protected by patents and thus further erode the U.S. balance of trade?
Two fields of specialty polymers—silicones and fluoroelastomers—developed rapidly after World War II under the leadership of U.S. companies. These high-performance, high-value-added materials have become standards in high-performance equipment used under extreme temperatures or harsh operating conditions. Advances in both fields have been rapid, and U.S. patent positions have been strong, thus effectively keeping foreign companies from gaining market share. But there are strong signs that foreign competition in silicones and fluoroelastomers is gaining, and the steady increase in research and development spending overseas, particularly in Germany and Japan, is serving notice that our lead in this specialty polymer field may be ending. Both Germany and Japan now spend nearly 3 percent of their gross domestic product on research and development, whereas the United States is spending about 2 percent (NSF, 1992).
What is true for silicones and fluoroelastomers is also true for composites. The last four decades have seen continuous growth in composites for a variety of uses. In the early stages, glass fiber was the material of choice because of its good characteristics and low price. As strength-to-weight ratios and stiffness became more important, new fiber reinforcement materials were needed, primarily for uses related to aviation. The ultimate choice for widespread use was carbon fiber. The early work on carbon fibers was done in the United States, but it was not long before foreign companies were also doing research in the field, and today the leading producers are outside the United States, mostly in Japan.
The foregoing competitive problems are merely examples of the difficulties facing the United States as we move toward a global economy. Certainly, every effort must be made to rejuvenate the U.S. industry for polymer processing equipment.