Advanced Ceramics / Raw and Processed Materials / Refractories

Opportunities in Engineering Ceramics Markets

September 1, 2011


The overall value of the 2010 engineering ceramics market (including medical, environmental and process applications) in Europe was estimated to be €2.6 billion (approximately $3.2 billion). Several of the market sectors are mature, but other applications are expected to experience strong growth during the 2011-2016 period.

An average annual growth rate (AAGR) of around 3.1% for the sector as a whole is anticipated for Europe (see Table 1). The applications in which the highest growth rates are expected include bioceramics, bearings, diesel exhaust filters and wear parts.

The overall value of the market for engineering ceramics in the U.S. in 2010 is estimated at $1.7 billion, with an AAGR of 2.7%. Engineering ceramic product applications with good growth prospects in the U.S. in the period 2011-2016 include bioceramics, bearings, membranes and general wear parts. The mechanical and wear parts group includes bioceramics (orthopedic and dental ceramics), armor, bearings, cutting tools, seals, milling media and other wear-resistant components. The high-temperature process parts include filters for molten metals, kiln furniture and continuous casting parts for steel.

Trends and Opportunities

The collapse in demand for engineering ceramics over the 2008-2009 period was dramatic in virtually all countries. However, many sectors should see demand regain 2008 levels in 2011 or 2012. The strength of the recovery varies from country to country. Overall growth rates in the period 2011-2016 are not expected to reach the levels of 2003-2008, but the speed of recovery has been impressive in Germany and neighboring countries.

In spite of the large number of companies manufacturing and/or supplying engineering ceramics, more than 59% of the market in Europe is supplied by just six companies. Similarly, six companies provide more than 67% of the market in the U.S. Several key companies, namely CoorsTek (since the acquisition of Saint-Gobain's activities), Vesuvius, Corning and NGK Insulators, are among the top suppliers in both geographic regions. Corning is the largest supplier in the U.S., mainly as a result of its dominance in the automotive catalyst support markets. Ibiden is the largest supplier to the European market on the basis of its diesel particulate filter sales.

Environmental legislation in both the U.S. and Europe has been a major stimulus to the commercialization of many engineering ceramic products, such as catalyst supports of many kinds, gas and exhaust filters, nozzles, membranes, pump seals, cutting tools, and bearings. Environmental factors will continue to play an important role in the future, especially in areas such as diesel engines, zero-emission pumps and high-temperature plants, which will have a positive impact on the development and commercialization of engineering ceramics.

Market Assessment by Application

In terms of the main applications, stark differences exist in the sale of engineering ceramics in the two regions. Europe, for example, produces far more ceramic hip prostheses than it consumes (exporting many to the U.S.), while ceramic armor is produced in larger quantities in the U.S. Automotive oxidation catalysts and particulate traps for small diesel engines are far more common in Europe than in the U.S.

Automotive catalyst supports (ceramic honeycombs to be coated with noble metals) are now the most important market for engineering ceramics in the U.S., and the second most important in Europe, with a combined value of $760 million in 2010. All cars in Europe and the U.S. are now fitted with exhaust catalysts, including diesel cars (oxidation catalysts); therefore, the future demand for honeycomb supports will follow the changes in automobile production. This will include cars for export to markets outside the U.S. and Europe, where similar environmental legislation is being adopted.

By 2010, most diesel cars and light vehicles in Europe were being fitted with particulate filters, most of which were made with silicon carbide. Some also incorporated mixed oxide materials (e.g., aluminum titanate or, more rarely, cordierite). Growth in demand for filters for heavy-duty diesel engine exhausts is expected to increase in anticipation of Euro 6 legislation in 2013. An additional incentive is the establishment of "low-emission zones" by large numbers of European cities. In the U.S., most heavy-duty diesel exhausts are already fitted with ceramic exhaust filters.

In terms of automobile engine components, engineering ceramics still do not represent a significant market, even after more than 30 years of intense research and testing. The main factor that limits the use of ceramics in the automotive engine sector is cost, which is affected by expensive powders and the fact that the components are difficult to manufacture using mass-production methods.

Other common applications have seen better success, however. For instance, Ceradyne's sintered reaction-bonded silicon nitride is now used in various valve train components, mainly for large diesel engines. Enceratec's zirconia fuel pump components for Cummins engines are also noteworthy.

Engineering ceramics have gained significant niche markets in the aero-engines sector, especially in areas where costs are less of a consideration and in demanding environments where they outpace their metal counterparts. Examples include nozzles, combustors, seals and main bearings in military aircraft.

Ceramic bearings are another technical and commercial success story. Despite slow beginnings in the 1980s, the advantages of ceramic bearings in aggressive or high-performance conditions are now universally acknowledged in applications such as hybrid bearings for spindles in machine tools. Electric motors, especially the high-voltage or small models, are also now a major application area. Annual growth in the European and U.S. markets for the 2011-2016 period is estimated at 6% and 4% per year, respectively. The main explanation for the difference in percentages is the state of the machine tools industry in the two regions.

In addition to the diesel particulate filters already mentioned, ceramic filters are used in many kinds of aggressive environments, including filters for molten metals; filters for hot gas streams in power stations, incinerators and other industrial plants; and ceramic membranes for microfiltration or ultrafiltration in the food, drink, petrochemicals or other industries. Growth in demand for ceramic hot gas filters has been disappointing in recent years, but it may take off in the future if coal gasification or biofuels become more widespread. Demand for ceramic membranes is expected to continue to grow at a high rate as well.

Filters for molten metals are mainly for ferrous and non-ferrous castings but also primary aluminium production, where larger, more expensive filters are required. The foundry industry is recovering on both sides of the Atlantic, but demand for filters in foundries is still not back to 2008 levels.

It is hard to draw a sharp distinction between high-value refractory components and engineering ceramics because high-purity, synthetic refractory products and kiln furniture can also be categorized as engineering ceramics. Demand for these items reflects the output of the roof tiles or pottery/whitewares industries. The markets for kiln furniture as a whole are expected to fall over the next few years as the production of whitewares moves away from Europe and the U.S. The consumption of kiln furniture is roughly three times as great in Europe as it is in the U.S.; this does not include silicon carbide parts for semiconductor processing equipment.

Over the past decade, the refractories industry has undergone massive rationalization and consolidation in both the U.S. and Europe. The outlook for the surviving refractory producers is much brighter than the relatively modest growth prospects might indicate. The use of better performing, longer lasting refractory products for the continuous casting of steel means that growth prospects for these high-value materials should now follow the steel sector production levels.

Large quantities of alumina milling media are consumed, especially in the traditional clay-based ceramics sector. Micro-milling media, such as zircon or zirconia beads, are now widely used in the rapid, efficient grinding of pigments, glazes, inks, paints, etc.

Additional Areas of Change

The status and outlook for additional engineering ceramics markets is given below:
  • The demand in the U.S. for ceramic armor (boron carbide, silicon carbide and alumina) increased rapidly to a peak in 2008. It is now much lower and will remain roughly flat in the next few years. The market for armor in the US is nevertheless much higher than it is in Europe.
  • The markets for bioceramics, particularly hip prostheses, have continued to increase. The European market in number terms is now more than twice that of the U.S.
  • The use of zirconia ceramics in dental restorations (e.g., implants, abutments, bridges and crowns) is growing at a high rate in both Europe and the U.S. The introduction of CAD/CAM processing of pre-sintered blanks is significant.
  • Demand for silicon nitride cutting tools for cast iron milling and whisker-reinforced alumina, the preferred tool for machining nickel alloys, have both recovered along with the mechanical engineering sector.
  • The investment in de-NOx catalysts in electricity plants in the U.S. was high in the past; the rate of installation has now slowed down.
  • Ceramic pump seals (silicon carbide and alumina) now constitute an established market. The trend to replace alumina with silicon carbide continues.
  • Healthy growth in the demand for ceramic wear parts, including wear plates, pump parts, faucet/tap plates, nozzles, valve parts and other items, has now resumed. Imports from China are increasing significantly in this market.
Engineering Ceramics in Europe and the USA is a 300-page report covering the markets, trends and technology in 2010, with growth projections through 2016. The report contains 130 tables and reviews the activities of over 125 companies. The report was published by Enceram in June 2011. For more information, contact Enceram at Mount Pleasant, Menith Wood, Worcester WR6 6UB; call (44) 1584-881216; or email john.briggs8@btopenworld.com.

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