BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) -- Carmakers including Audi and Mercedes-Benz are turning to high-tech adhesives as they seek ways to make cars lighter and tougher.
Automakers are now using more aluminum and exotic composites, which cannot be welded together but have to be glued with adhesives that will not lose their strength and can hold together parts even at top speeds and high pressure. That puts industrial adhesives -- made up of chemicals like the polyolefins that are used in Croc shoes and tennis racket strings -- at the top of carmakers' shopping lists.
The 2-3 billion euro ($2.6 billion-$3.9 billion) market for automotive adhesives currently accounts for less than 10 percent of the global adhesives market, but industry experts forecast the amount of glue used in an average car may grow by at least a third over the next 5-10 years, from around 15 kilograms now. As well as sealants that fill in tiny gaps in the various joints of a car, stronger structural adhesives can now be used to hold together and stiffen load-bearing parts and components like doors, bumpers and struts.
"Those who can demonstrate that their glue has something different to offer, and that it can be easily integrated into production processes, will achieve good margins," said Fabrice Roghe, a partner specializing in industrial goods at Boston Consulting Group in Dusseldorf.
For suppliers like Henkel, PPG and Atlas Copco, providing tailor-made adhesives that can absorb the shock of a crash and reduce rattles allows them to push for higher prices -- and make more profits. Stricter emissions rules in major markets mean cars have to become more fuel-efficient and less polluting, which in most cases means they will have to be lighter than last year's average weight of 1,400 kilograms.
Henkel, the world's largest maker of adhesives, is selling off divisions that deal with simpler industrial glues to focus on more complex and specialist products used on cars, airplanes or mobile phones. The margin for its adhesive technologies division stood at 16.5 percent in the first quarter, outperforming the group as a whole, which had a margin of 14.9 percent.
Global auto sales may surge 28 percent to 102 million cars by 2018, fueled by growth in Asia and North America, according to research firm IHS Automotive.
"We don't buy glues off the peg but work very closely together with manufacturers on complex specific adhesive applications," said Michael Zuern, head of materials engineering at Mercedes.
Sweden's Atlas Copco entered the auto adhesives segment in 2011 through the acquisition of German company SCA-Schucker.
"It's one of the product areas with the strongest growth since it's driven by new techniques all the time, and the carmakers' new ideas," said Mats Rahmstrom, head of the group's business area Industrial Technique.