There’s a future in plastic

“Don’t bring me back some cheap plastic junk,” said the 12-year-old as I packed my bags for a business visit to Shanghai.

That might be difficult, I thought, recalling the long list of now broken toys that had passed as birthday presents over the years.

‘Made in China’ has become a byword for cheap and nasty in the West. But China is fast lifting its game, and a visit to a spanking new plastics research centre today has rammed home the point: China is innovating its way to top.

The Polymer Research and Development Centre is the Asia-Pacific hub for Bayer Material Science, one of the three companies making up the Bayer Group. The German conglomerate, which is a reasonably big investor in New Zealand, was originally considering Japan or Taiwan for its state-of-art R&D plant. Shanghai got the nod, joining Leverkusen in Germany and Pittsburgh in the USA as one of just three major research hubs in BMS.  

The fact that BMS changed its mind is testament to the scale of China’s manufacturing base. Most of BMS’ clients are here and at least one large division, Polycarbonates, moved its HQ from Germany to Shanghai two years ago. Perhaps that’s no surprise to you. China is ‘the factory of the world’ after all.

But the siting of this research centre in Shanghai as opposed to Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, or Taiwan, where BMS also has R&D facilities, manifests the growing role of innovation in mainland China. Right now, Japan and South Korea are Asia’s leaders in R&D spending. But China is catching up. It accounts for about 15 percent of total global R&D spend and overtook the USA in 2011 to become the leader in patent filing. As a proportion of GDP, China’s R&D expenses will increase from 1.75 percent in 2010 to 2.2 percent by 2020.

 “Our regional innovation hub will become a significant contributor to our overall global innovation network,” says Patrick Thomas, chief executive of BMS. “We are aiming to reach a global innovation footprint for Bayer and its partners by exporting China-made technology to the rest of the world by 2020.”

Having walked through the buildings today, I’m confident they’re onto a winner. The labs contain bench after bench of German-source laboratory gear, and standards, says Bayer, are equal to those of Europe. They’re certainly not short of talent. The PRDC is expecting to have 200 employees by the end of the year and has multiple research collaborations with Chinese companies and three local universities.

I remember as a kid that ‘Made in Japan’ was a term of derision – we called it Jap Crap – just as 'Made in China' is now. But with the companies like Bayer Material Sciences choosing to locate its best and brightest in Shanghai, China’s reputation for cheap plastic junk might be a thing of the past.

Vincent Heeringa is in Shanghai as a guest of Bayer Material Science.