Shape memory polymers (SMPs) are a type of polymeric material that can be deformed, retain this deformation, but then revert to the original shape/configuration upon triggering by an external stimulus. Typically, this external stimulus is heat, but several classes of stimuli are associated with SMPs.
Thus SMPs can be categorized into light-responsive SMPs, chemical-responsive SMPs, magnetic field-responsive SMPs, as well as thermal-responsive SMPs. Potentially these additional stimuli broaden the number of applications for which SMPs can be used.
That said, at the present time, SMPs are not as widely used as shape memory alloys (SMAs). SMAs can already be considered fully commercialized in the sense that they are already widely used – in the aerospace and biomedical fields, for example – albeit for specialist, rather than mass market applications. By contrast, activity in the SMP space is still to be found mostly – but by no means exclusively — in the R&D space.
That said, n-tech believes that SMPs will enable sizeable market is about to develop. There are three possible reasons for believing this and these are set out in Exhibit 1-1.
SMPs are Intrinsically Superior to SMAs in Many Applications
From the demand side, n-tech believes the most powerful reason for believing that SMPs have an important future is that there are numerous applications where OEMs would in general rather use a plastic than a metal. Plastics are generally lighter, more malleable, more biocompatible and less expensive than metals, while plastics can also emulate the strength and electrical conductivity of real metals to a limited degree
All this translates into a potential long-term advantage of SMPs over SMA, particularly as SMPs represent a broad class of polymers – the technical literature covers many different kinds of polymers that demonstrate the shape memory phenomena, which implies that SMPs can be used for many different applications. SMPs may be thermoplastics, for example, or thermoset plastics.
The bottom line here is that SMPs may over time may replace SMAs in some applications and new applications for SMPs (especially in the medical field) may emerge for which SMAs cannot compete.
The SMP Supply Chain Can Grow Exponentially
Another supply-side factor that n-tech believes will also drive SMP is the growing attention from notable material firms. In the SMA space, we have already seen this factor serving as a driver for what has become an economically viable business sector – in the SMA sector, there are already specialist firms supplying nitinol in quantity, for example.
Pure-play and specialist firms come first: In fact, n-tech believes that we are already beginning to see the emergence of specialist firms of this kind begin to carve out a similar niche and build the beginnings of a supply chain for SMPs. Among the firms we have in mind here are Cornerstone, Spintech, Medshape, Syzygy Memory Plastics and others.
The big names follow: But what is “exciting” in this context is that when one begins to dig there is also an interest from the some of the great specialty chemical/polymer firms; firms that are potentially capable of putting large financial and marketing resources behind SMPs should they wish to do so. Admittedly one has to dig a bit to find evidence of this, but n-tech thinks that there is enough going on at some of the big names of specialty plastics to claim a trend here:
We note that that Bayer, under its new name of Covestro, is well on its way to a commercialized SMP offering in the form of its Desmopan thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer (TPU) with shape-memory properties.
Meanwhile, BASF has also shown some interest in this sector and as a firm that has apparently sees a willingness to invest in smart materials, is certainly also a firm to watch in SMP.
Evonik has an SMP material in its portfolio of specialty materials and Mitsubishi was also in the SMP space and Mitusbishi was very active in the SMP space a few years back, although its current involvement is a bit hard to discern.
Long tails: We think that the involvement of big name materials firms is an important sign that SMP product development will receive serious financial and business development considerations in the near future. However, we think that — like many commercially important advanced materials — SMPs will – as the saying has it – “take decades to become an overnight success.”
More professionally, we note that a successful future for SMP is a scenario that is more credible by its “long tail” of high quality R&D carried out over many years,
SMPs, in fact, date back to the late 1970s or early 1980s (historical reviews of SMPs seem to disagree on this point) when SMPs were first developed by CdF Chimie Company, which was soon commercialized by Nippon Zeon Company and other companies. In fact, there was a short-lived boom in SMP R&D. But we think in a new environment is which “smart” sells, SMPs have a much better chance this time around.
A Potentially Broad User Base for SMPs
Exhibit 1-2 lists markets in which SMPs are likely to generate revenues or are already likely to do so. This exhibit is not intended to be complete in its coverage, but rather to give a sense of how broad the potential products and markets are for SMP, but also that there is no obvious “killer app” here.
The bottom line is that the SMP market for the next decade is most like to present itself as fragmented, both across end user industries and across products and services within these end user industries. However, many of the actual and potential uses for SMPs are still far from being niches – self-repairing car bodies are potential big business, for example. In any case, at least for now SMPs should be thought of as a tactical technology, rather than as a technology that can create huge strategic changes in (say) the way that the introduction of composites has done in aerospace.