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The History and Future of TPEs

There’s no stopping the growth of soft, versatile, industry-changing thermoplastic elastomers

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By Thomas A. Dieschbourg

Star Thermoplastic Alloys & Rubber, Inc., Broadview, Illinois, USA


TPEs used in the manufacture of cases for medical, electronics, and fitness gadgets (not to mention their straps) have become extremely popular materials, providing color as well as product protection.


Medical products manufacturers have found TPEs to be superior to other materials, including silicone, latex, and PVC.


TPEs dominate the personal-products business, being used for soft, colorful, and “grippy” handles.

While most articles or references to thermoplastic elastomers credit Kraton with the introduction of TPEs (for footwear), the real credit (in this author’s opinion) for the founding and ongoing success of TPEs goes out to several people, governments, and firms, such as:

Yesterday & Today

As referred to above, the actual founding of what was to evolve into the family of TPEs goes back nearly two centuries ago when Charles Goodyear first crosslinked rubber by vulcanization. Yet even his early efforts were preceded just slightly by Thomas Hancock who was able to reduce the molecular weight of rubber by milling.1

In more recent times, during World War II, Germany was able to polymerize dimethyl butadiene to produce a substitute for natural rubber from Asia. And more recently, around 1975, ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) in the elastomer phase was cross-linked during the mixing process (called dynamic vulcanization), resulting in the development of thermoplastic elastomers that were soft and had all the beneficial and required properties, features, and benefits of both plastic and rubber.

Today, there are six distinct types of TPEs, many of which require vulcanization (as does rubber) to be manufactured: styrenic block copolymers (SBCs) and blends, copolyesters (COPEs), polyether block amides (PEBAs), thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPUs), thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPVs), and thermoplastic olefins (TPOs). And, as new alloys come on the market, the potential for new types or families of TPEs and applications are boundless. Each type or family of TPE has similar characteristics but offers different features and benefits such as recyclability (in most cases), heat resistance, durability, elongation, abrasion resistance, clarity, etc.—and they all can be produced using standard molding or extrusion processes.

During the 1990s and into the first 13 years of this century, things literally exploded for TPEs and TPE sales, given the needs of the automotive industry to reduce weight and for consumer products to be differentiated—plus a call for better-performing and better-looking products (power-drill handles, for example). Given these needs to substitute better materials for old ones, and for lower-cost ways to produce them, TPEs grew at the rate of 6% a year through 2013.

Now, with up to 4 million tons of TPE formulations being sold and consumed worldwide annually, and with better compounds and more applications coming out almost daily, it’s expected that TPEs will continue to grow through 2018 at an expected rate of 6.0 to 6.3%—becoming a $23.9 billion industry, with the U.S. market expected to reach $15.3 billion. Much of this growth will come as a result of increased automotive/transportation and healthcare demands.


Looking Ahead

As noted at the beginning of this article, much of the growth of modern TPEs in the 1980s and beyond can be attributed to many firms offering extensive laboratory services. They’ve helped designers, manufacturers, and marketers with specialized (and sometimes proprietary) formulations for new and often unique products or applications.

Then something strange and foreboding happened: larger plastics firms and compounders, as well as investment groups, saw TPEs as a “cash cow.” With their purchase of medium-to-large TPE compounders, the creation of specialized compounds for new applications—and the staffs and willingness to do this—were reduced, with emphasis placed on selling “off-the-shelf “ formulations.

As the North American economy has begun to strongly bounce back, and manufacturing is returning to N.A.’s shores, there most certainly will be a rebound by companies and entrepreneurs to resume the “American Way” by innovating and creating new products with new material needs. At least three new companies (two new to the USA, plus a large PVC manufacturer that’s expanding its product range to include TPEs) are expected to become the latest contenders in the marketplace.

Challenges and demands will be met by smaller-to-medium-size firms, and maybe by the several larger firms coming from Europe and China which most likely don’t or won’t consider R&D as overhead, but rather as a profit center. They are focused not only on meeting customer needs on a one-to-one basis but also, through research, on offering materials and ways that actually reduce the cost of end-product production costs and material usage costs.

The future of TPEs continues to look bright as a major revenue-generator for all parties concerned in the proverbial “art to part” process, from designer to the manufacturer and to the marketer. The markets are primarily driven by demands for higher performance and lighter weights in automotive and other industries, and by the replacement of other materials such as latex and rubber in numerous other products. Calls for TPEs to bond better to more substrates are a constant challenge. Also, there are increasing demands for materials such as TPEs to replace PVC in a variety of applications. And lastly, calls for more TPEs with even better features and benefits, and more eco-friendly formulations and acceptable pricing levels, will offer compounders greater challenges—and opportunities—than ever before.


  1. G. Holden, Understanding of Thermoplastic Elastomers, Hanser Gardner, 1999.