INSIGHT: Europe’s chemicals clusters challenged in slump

20 February 2009 12:58  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

BRUSSELS (ICIS news)--Europe’s future chemicals competitiveness relies largely on the success of cluster development and better logistics.

Some 300 upstream chemical plants are spread across 30 chemical sites. Some of these plants and sites are more efficient than others.

Companies operating in well performing clusters benefit in terms of costs and resources. They also tend to have a similar ‘carbon footprint’.

But despite the obvious advantages, cluster development has been patchy.

Supply chain integration within clusters has not been achieved, industry experts believe. The inter-connection with other clusters is reckoned to be insufficient.

In its final report, which was published this week, the EU’s High Level Group on chemicals competitiveness stressed the importance of cluster development. It has proposed the creation of a ‘road map’ for the improvement of logistics infrastructure.

“In many cases, logistics and infrastructure have been neglected and there is considerable scope for improvement,” it says.

The problems are only now being realised. But the lack of a long-term view and the vagaries of the chemicals cycle will all work to deny cluster effectiveness.

“A multi-stakeholder approach to cluster leadership may permit developing a long-term perspective and guarantee consistency,” the HLG report suggests.

At the same time a pan-European cluster platform can help to create a broader European perspective focusing on improvements to logistics infrastructure between clusters, it says.

Logistics costs range between 10% and 40% of the turnover of Europe’s chemicals industry. The industry is widespread and intra-EU movements represent 50% of total sales.

And despite attempts at more clustering and better integration, freight volumes are expected to increase by 2.5% a year over the next 10 years.

This does not make a great deal of sense for a sector that ships often dangerous goods on stressed transport systems.

Chemicals road traffic is increasing while transport by rail is on the decline. There are clear barriers to effective inter-modal transport.

Product pipelines may be crucial for the industry but real problems have been encountered in efforts to close the gaps in the existing network.

In the midst of a down cycle it is particularly difficult to consider longer-term cluster and logistics trends, and the commitment that such projects might need. And clusters are as vulnerable as they are potentially effective.

The HLG estimated last year that a cyclical downturn caused by global overcapacity could lead to the closure of 10% of ‘marginal’ crackers in Europe. That proportion could be much higher given the current deep slump.

The extent of capacity reductions and their regional impact depends largely on policy decisions, the HLG says. But companies are being forced to take action.

The knock-on impact on some clusters is potentially severe.

The message that Europe needs vibrant basic petrochemicals if the chemicals sector is to thrive seems to have been put across effectively in the HLG.

The cluster concept for chemicals fits neatly with the wider view on EU manufacturing industry sustainability.

The downturn will deal a blow to the petrochemicals sector but in Europe it by no means needs to be fatal.

If the costs can be made to work with the right investments, producing petrochemicals in some parts of the region makes a great deal of sense.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect


By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214



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