What do you see driving the industry?
The one thing all our customers want right now is differentiation. As a company we try hard not to get into a commodity mindset or participate in a race to the bottom. If someone comes to us and says they want to make the cheapest product around, I tell them we’re not the right partner. We want to offer distinguishable product positions for each of our customers. Many sports equipment is heavily regulated, especially at competition levels, and companies are forced to find a way to differentiate themselves within the constraints.
Composite baseball bats have had some problems with meeting the new accelerated break in (ABI) procedures. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) took 20 to 25composite bats from the College World Series and ran them through an ABI technique that forces deflection through the barrel. If the speed of the ball increases after the test (which it did) from delimitation of the bat, then the bat is illegal. Manufacturers have struggled with this problem and now composite barrel bats are illegal in NCAA competitions. However, you can differentiate your product by putting composites only in the taper and handle sections of the bat and leave the barrel as an aluminum, which is completely legal. It also creates a unique feel, which ends up is a pretty important factor in the industry.
What processes are becoming standard in composites?
We’ve made big commitment to bladder molding processes for technical reasons. The premise of that choice is that we live in a world where our customers require their products to be lighter and lighter. And yet if you look at the equations of stress on any product, , the layer that is the most stressed is the outer layer, yet that is the one that is ground, distorted and painted, especially in sports equipment. To me, that’s a terrible solution. Our premise on molded and finished products, like RTM techniques or autoclave curing, have come a long way and will continue to develop. We haven’t been able to adapt it to some of our demanding structural and weight products, but we keep looking at it.
Where is there potential for composite growth?
We built a business in automotive and a division that is looking at and priming the pump for composite automotive applications. As world of hybrids and heavy batteries become more prevalent, composites will gain a foothold. Automotive is a huge, ripe area for the picking and we haven’t reached diminishing returns there yet. I also see potential in consumer products such as luggage and baby strollers because people want things to be lighter.