New opportunities identified for £21bn UK chemical industry

Demand from emerging markets for UK goods, the rise of ‘green chemistry’, and the positive impact of digitalisation on production costs are three key opportunities for the UK’s chemical manufacturers.


UK Chemical Industry Chemicals Science Research Laboratory - image courtesy of Depositphotos
The UK chemicals industry generated £12.1bn and £21bn in gross value added and sales respectively in 2016 – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Other opportunities are the growing demand for low-impact products and production processes that meet heightened environmental regulation, and the need for specific chemicals to support the booming, global 3D printing market.

The findings have been revealed in a new sector report from Santander and EEF.

With £12.1bn and £21bn generated in gross value added and sales respectively in 2016, the UK chemical industry makes a sizeable contribution to UK manufacturing and the wider UK economy.

Output has increased 27% since 1990, a growth rate surpassed only by the pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles and other transport sectors. Between 1996 and 2016, the chemicals sector productivity growth more than doubled, outstripping growth in all other manufacturing sub-sectors, barring other transport.

Head of Manufacturing at Santander Corporate & Commercial, Paul Brooks explained: “From shampoos and soaps, to industrial products derived from petrochemicals and dyes, the chemical sector has a hand in almost every aspect of daily life, without us often realising.

“The sector’s impressive slice of R&D expenditure, given its size, has also contributed to huge gains in productivity growth over the last 20 years, and while the sector was hit hard, like most, by the financial crash, its output has bounced back and is now broadly back to its pre-crisis level.”

According to the EEF and Santander Chemicals Sector Bulletin, the six market opportunities for the UK chemicals sector are:

Digitalisation

As with all other manufacturing sectors, 4IR technologies, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence are all growing in importance and influence. The big opportunities lie in optimisation but also better security and importantly smart manufacturing, such as the introduction of closed loop sensors, which has the ability to improve logistics, reduce waste and avoid delays.

Shale gas

The recent development of the shale gas market has revolutionised world commodity markets over the last few years. In the UK, shale gas, and specifically the process of fracking, has been the source of much debate, with particular concern regarding the environmental impact. However, there are also many opportunities on offer, in terms of job creation, cost reduction and crucially reduced dependency on Russian gas.

Environmental policies

The push towards environmentally friendly policies can represent an opportunity for chemical manufacturers, over the longer term. The demand for low-impact products and production processes is growing, and governments are increasingly introducing new regulations to this effect. This may mean higher costs in the short term for businesses, but it may also result in manufacturers pushing to achieve greater efficiency and productivity, key drivers for prosperity in the long-run. Opportunities also lie in the development of new bio products.

Green chemistry

Green chemistry broadly describes the efforts of industry to reduce the negative impact that chemical manufacturing has on the environment through emissions and waste, by developing alternative products and processes. One of the most influential trends has been the move to bio-based feedstocks. For instance, the majority of solvents have historically been derived from petroleum. In recent years, however, the element D-limonene has seen its uptake increase as manufacturers look to move towards “greener inputs”. D-limonene is the main component of oil extracted from citrus fruit rinds.

3D printers

3D printing is becoming a crucial technology in manufacturing, and the chemical sector is no different. Several chemical players are already investing, together with 3D printing manufacturers, to develop chemical products suitable for this technology. Producing polymers, resins or powders able to satisfy clients’ needs and to run efficiently in a 3D printer can be a great source of revenues for chemical companies.

Emerging markets

Long term growth in the chemical industry, as is the trend throughout manufacturing, hinges on the sector’s ability to harness the opportunities that emerging markets represent. The globalisation of the industry has occurred at a rapid pace, as more and more manufacturing activities shift to the Far East. While this can represent a risk to some incumbent UK chemical manufacturers, the opportunities on offer are great, particularly from China.