Tin consumption in 2018 was stronger than previously anticipated, according to year-end data. Despite a positive start to the year, expectations were revised downwards following the US-China trade tensions and poor macroeconomic data. However, based on the most recent data, growth in tin use remained relatively robust, growing by 2.5% over the course of the year.

While some people may still view ‘tin’ as a food container, the uses of the metal are diverse, including a wide range of chemical applications. The main use of tin, however, is in solder. This conductive material connects electronic components, enabling a vast spectrum of technology to function correctly. Tin is also used in both traditional lead-acid batteries, as well as potentially in emerging lithium-ion batteries, where significant future growth may be expected.

2018 was a tumultuous year for most commodities. In the base metals group, although the first half of the year appeared positive – with most metals registering increased prices – the second half of the year significantly dampened growth expectations. Following the introduction of trade tariffs and the escalating US-China trade tensions, markets reacted poorly, with all metals declining from their intra-year highs.

The International Tin Association’s (ITA) annual survey of tin users, carried out in July each year, directly accounts for some 40% of global refined tin use and is used to forecast annual consumption. While this survey projected global growth of around 3% for 2018, expectations were moderated by the deteriorating macroeconomic outlook at the time, resulting in a total year forecast of just 1% growth. However, despite some weakening of demand in the latter half of the year, global refined tin consumption in fact grew by some 2.5% in 2018, up around 9,000 tonnes compared with 2017.

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Geographically, roughly 45% of all tin is consumed in China. While the Chinese solder market is impacted by electronics miniaturisation, there is growing demand in other areas, such as automotive, industrial and medical uses. Although Chinese consumption did decline slightly in 2018, this was offset by significant growth in overall tin consumption in the rest of the world (5%).

This year, preliminary forecasts of tin consumption indicate a relatively flat year, with growth outside of China compensating for predicted contraction in the Chinese market. The overall slowdown of the Chinese economy is likely to be impacted by the on-going US-China trade tensions, although the two countries may be nearing a resolution. However, it is too early to comment on how a new trade deal would affect tin consumption. Outside of China, miniaturisation may have peaked, with growth in the electronics markets now fuelling new tin use. Overall, early estimates of tin consumption in 2019 indicate some contraction, but probably less than 1%.

ITA is tracking several new markets that should see significant new tin use in the medium term. Renewable energy generation and storage, as well as advanced computing and robotics all present growth areas for tin, according to ITA research. Furthermore, an independent report by MIT and Rio Tinto predicts that tin is the metal set to gain the most from the upcoming technology super-cycle due to its unique properties and role as the technological ‘glue’ that will connect everything together.