Composites: What to look for in 2015
“The global composites market is anticipated to witness good growth and reach approximately $35.1 billion in 2019 with a [compound annual growth rate] of 6.6% over the next five years. The composites market is expected to experience growth in the future with new developments in various sectors.”
From this analysis, the future’s looking bright for the composites industry. So what can we expect to see in the more immediate days ahead?
A focus on three key markets: aerospace, automotive, and wind energy
Lucintel’s Nigel O’Dea made this prediction just weeks ago in his presentation at the Composites Engineering show in Birmingham, UK. And there’s good reason to believe it. Successful efforts launched in each of these three markets in 2014 will likely be the momentum that pushes them ahead.
The Boeing 787 and Airbus A320 are both commercial airliners that, at least for many vital parts of the aircraft, have made the structural switch from traditional metals to carbon fiber and other composite materials. Research from Lucintel revealed there’s currently an increased demand for both in the market, intensifying production. In fact, it’s projected that Boeing 787s will increase from five per month in 2013 to nearly triple that over the next five years.
According to Justin Hale, 787 Deputy Chief Mechanic, the Boeing 787 is now nearly half carbon reinforced plastic and other composites. He added: “The Boeing 787 makes greater use of composite materials in its airframe and primary structure than any previous Boeing commercial airplane. Undertaking the design process without preconceived ideas enabled Boeing engineers to specify the optimum material for specific applications throughout the airframe.”
The resultant airframe offers weight savings on average of 20 percent compared to more conventional aluminum designs. Weight savings directly improves fuel efficiency. Additionally, switching composites for metal reduces the number of parts and, likewise, maintenance costs by an estimated 30 percent. Even more, composites reduce corrosion and structural fatigue which extends the lifespan of the aircraft over time.
BMW i chose to use carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) as the foundation for the BMWi3, an electric car launched worldwide over the past year. In fact, it contains the first-ever, mass-produced CFRP passenger cell in the automotive business. The carbon cell is as strong as steel—but half the weight—making a major impact on the car’s overall efficiency.
This movement isn’t exclusive to electric and hybrid vehicles. Again, Lucintel’s O’Dea weighs in: “In automotive, legislation is currently driving a lot of developments and resulting in manufacturers such as BMW making investments in their car programs to meet ongoing fuel efficiency and emissions caps.”
Auto manufacturers stateside are paying attention, and here’s why. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were established by the U.S. government in mid 1970s. Under the direction of the president, CAFE standards are regulated by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines the average fuel economy levels for manufacturers, as well as emissions caps.
According to the DOT, the NHTSA projects CAFE standards will require in model year 2021, on average, a combined fleet-wide fuel economy of 40.3 to 41.0 mpg. Auto manufacturers across the board are already being forced to make changes—which will likely include composites.
Take a look at some basic U.S. statistics for wind energy:
- • By the end of 2013, there were 39 states (plus Puerto Rico) that have operating utility-scale wind energy projects.
- • Over 500 new wind turbines were installed in 2013, generating over 1,000 MW of new wind capacity.
- • A late November 2014 survey revealed that 73 percent of registered voters support keeping the renewable energy Production Tax Credit, the key federal policy support mechanism for wind energy (Gotham Research Group).
Those numbers equal growth, and are likely pushing the government to renew offshore wind energy investments. Composites, from unidirectional fiberglass to carbon fiber , are at the core of modern wind energy technology.
Carbon fiber becomes more affordable and more available.
If the advances and demand in these markets are any indication, it looks like carbon fiber may be leading the pack for composites. Traditionally, it’s been significantly more expensive than other composite reinforcement options as well as typical construction materials like steel. Carbon fiber will require more affordability, particularly in terms of production and access.
Automotive News reported in October 2014 that MAI Carbon Cluster Management GmbH—a research effort supported by Germany’s federal government, research institutes, and businesses (including BMW and Audi AG)—is making progress toward reducing carbon fiber production costs by 90 percent.
Stateside, the Department of Energy’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has developed a carbon fiber line for “demonstrating advanced technology scalability and producing market-development volumes of prototypical carbon fibers.” It serves as the last step before commercial production scale. Wood products company Weyerhauser and carbon fiber player Zoltek have also partnered to reduce the cost of carbon fiber.
Carbon fiber recycling will get more attention.
It’s a natural progression: increased production and use of carbon fiber means more carbon fiber waste eventually—whether it’s dry fabric, prepreg, or damaged and unused laminates. Many companies have been working on recycling research and efforts to accommodate growing production, including a collaboration by Boeing and the BMW Group nearly two years ago. But finding applications for recycled composites proves to be a challenge, as determining the exact mechanical properties of reclaimed fibers has been nearly impossible—properties that are often required by manufacturers.
But as composites technology sprints forward, there will likely be greater investment into creating a solution.
Technology will be shared.
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”
—Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, June 2014
In a bold move this past summer, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made his company patents freely available to the public by way of a blog post. Of course, it seems unlikely that a tidal wave of tech-protecting companies—no matter what industry they’re in—will follow suit without thoughtful consideration. However, partnerships like the one established between Boeing and BMW to move carbon recycling forward are real…and productive.
When great thinking comes together, the possibilities to advance seem more likely to happen and to happen more quickly.
Composites get even cooler.
Take a look at just a few that have popped up over the past year.
Transparent composites. Based on recent patent activity, it looks like Apple has been experimenting with composites for several years and may have invented a method to manufacture transparent fiber reinforced plastic structures. This extends beyond a few layers of 2-ounce fiberglass and into complex composites. Think wearable technology, and structural panels for cars and airplanes.
Programmable carbon fiber. As reported in our November blog, the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT has developed materials—carbon fiber being one of them—that can be programmed to transform their shape autonomously. Materials react with passive energy sources, like water or heat, to fold and twist into a desired shape.
3D printing. Desktop printers are popping up everywhere like the Mark One from Mark Forged, which claims to be the world’s first printer designed to print continuous strand fiber, including carbon fiber and fiberglass—all with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum. Let’s face it, think tank Local Motors 3D-printed a working automobile (using carbon fiber) at the SEMA auto show in Las Vegas this year. Then, they drove it home.
3-Minute prepregs. Toho Tenax announced they have developed a carbon fiber prepreg that cures in three minutes at 150˚C, resulting in dramatically increased production efficiency.
So, here’s to the successes of 2015! At Fibre Glast Developments, we look forward to another year of working with you to build better composites. Keep an eye on our newly redesigned website to see our entire catalog of First Quality products. Stay tuned for new products, even more helpful educational information, and continued improvements in your shopping experience.
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