What do you think it will take for composites to reach adulthood?
Materials that have been introduced over the years have several maturity cycles. For example, in the ‘80s everyone was making things out of carbon fiber and then they realized that it’s not a simple technology so stepped away from it. Some went bankrupt, some were bought out and over the years the technology matured. Now, people know how to process things, they know a bit more about the resin/fiber properties and we’re once again in the upswing. I think what the composites industry will realize is that there is still a lot to learn, that we’re not quite there yet. In my opinion it’s not a mature technology. I think there is a lot to learn, especially on the chemical level.
Are there indicators you look for to say we’ve reached that potential?
That’s hard to say because the aerospace industry is a slow-adapting industry, and rightly so. The rapid adaptors that are going for new applications are sporting goods like composite bikes and sports cars. I think that’s where a lot of innovation will come from. More people will learn how to design, process and fine-tune properties.
The major learning curve that needs to occur is for manufacturers, especially within aerospace and automotive, to step away from thinking composites are metal mimics. They need to realize that a composite part may look different when it’s built because it’s not a metal mimic. If they don’t, that’s when things fail. You can’t just replace one part made out of composites! For example, if you take a racing bike, then look at a single tube and say ‘that’s what it looks like now’ and match it with carbon, that just doesn’t work. It will fail.
People are now starting to understand and appreciate that everything can’t be made out of composites. Well they can, but they’ll be expensive. Wind turbines are at the brink of moving more into composites, as well as automotive. If that happens, they’ll be major drivers because while it’s fun to own a plane, that’s not quantity. Cars are quantity.
What is on the horizon for composites?
Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention but should is compounding, which I think is going to be a problem solver for a lot of composite applications. Making continuous fiber composites is expensive. but it is used because properties are instantly better than those using a heat resin property. Compounding is a field that is in between and very promising. In compounding you take chopped resin, approximately 2 cm in length, that can be injection molded into complex shapes and parts that will be—property wise—an in-between for continuous fiber composites and heat resin and can be made at a much faster pace.