How volatility in the cost of raw materials impacts prices

Jan 19, 2024

Here at Borough Chrome, we have worked hard to be recognised as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of chrome-plated injection moulded components for a range of sectors, including automotive, washroom, packaging and point-of-sale.

The durability and quality of finish delivered by the chrome our long-developed processes consistently apply to plastics such as ABS, makes the finished products hard to distinguish from traditional chromed plated metal or alloy components.

The easiest way to tell the difference is the weight, which is the main reason our customers choose to switch to chrome-plated plastics. The automotive sector has historically been the largest market for our weight-saving components, but new markets are opening as the benefits become more widely known to product designers.

Properties of ABS and the benefits of plating

Many of the characteristics of ABS plastic make it the ideal choice for a huge rage of industrial applications, such as its dimensional stability, processing ability, toughness, durability, affordability and chemical resistance.

However, ABS components also come with inherent weaknesses, such as its mechanical strength and poor performance in even relatively benign environmental conditions, which can seriously limit the life of any component.

To ensure the performance of any component benefits from the positive characteristics of ABS, whilst mitigating its weaknesses, designers choose to chrome plate ABS plastic because it enhances:

  • Strength
  • Structural integrity
  • Thermal resistance
  • Aesthetic appeal
  • Corrosion resistance
  • Durability and abrasion resistance

It is the substrate that changes and not the finish, which results in any ABS material acquiring metallic properties. We always recommend ABS, as the best plastic option for plating, since we can deposit an adherent metal finish by a chemical process without mechanical abrasion.

Chrome plating on plastic needs Copper

To ensure we can apply chrome to injection-moulded ABS components we must first apply a thin layer of copper to the plastic, which makes it conductive and receptive to the adherent layers of nickel and chrome.

In the chemical process, we create holes in the surface of the ABS by removing butadiene molecules at the surface to leave spherical undercuts which act as an excellent key for the electro-conductive copper layer applied through electrolytic deposition.

Like all manufacturers, our pricing is directly related to the global market fluctuations for the variety of metals and chemicals on which we rely. Copper is an interesting commodity and although relatively stable for decades, recent history and future predictions are troubling.

Recent reports cite demand for copper will continue rising and is anticipated to exceed primary supply within the next four years and cause a 20% surge in prices by 2027, according to BloombergNEF analysis.

Fortunately, copper can be recycled repeatedly without any loss of performance and there is also no difference in the quality of recycled (secondary) or mined (primary) copper – where possible we use recycled copper to help reduces CO2 emissions and energy usage.

Copper prices driven by uncertainty

The fluctuating cost of copper this year has been driven by demand uncertainty. China’s slow economic recovery and poor predictions for the US economy have impacted the cost per ton, which saw a high of $9,356 in January, followed quickly by the year’s low of $7,902 in late May.

With China responsible for more than 50% of the world’s copper demand, any economic slowdown in the country could help to reduce prices, but lowering inflation in the west and a softening of interest rates could drive copper prices higher over the next two years.

The problem for businesses like ours, is trying to agree prices for our injection moulding and chrome plating services, months if not years in advance when the materials on which we rely trade on globally fluctuating markets.

Whilst prices have gone down recently, copper is still trading historically high, with demand from the renewable energy sector and electric vehicle manufacturers ensuring prices maintain an upward trajectory despite the occasional dip.

This rising trend in copper prices is worrying and when the transition to electric vehicles becomes even more widespread, demand will undoubtedly outstrip current supply levels and the cost per ton will rise significantly in a short period.

In response, we always seek to improve efficiency in our manufacturing processes, whether it’s new approaches that allow us to reduce energy consumption, new technology that minimises our use of raw materials or the automation of specific processes.

These are the only aspects of the pricing equation over which we have total control and why competing on a global stage is tricky for manufacturers in the UK.

As with businesses in other sectors, more government support would undoubtedly help, but a period of raw material price stability will be a good starting point for the new year, as we consider the price we charge for our injection moulded and chrome plated components.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll look at the prices of the other materials essential to our manufacturing process and offer further insight into the challenges faced by UK manufacturers. Please follow us on LinkedIn or sign up for our newsletter, which is more interesting than perhaps you think it might be.