What are the biggest obstacles to getting composites used in more applications?
There are two ongoing challenges. One is that engineers know how to design with steel and concrete. We’re asking structural engineers to embrace new materials, so they have to understand what that material is going to do. Codes and standards help them reliably design with composites.
The other challenge is that end users become comfortable with a process. For instance, some end users understand that you make bridge decks using pultrusion. They get the impression that all decks have to be pultruded to perform the same way. That’s not the case, but we have to educate them to avoid the perception that it is. Our industry has many tools to design and manufacture a product so that it can meet a performance need. How our industry decides what materials and processes are used should be up to the composites industry and not the end-user. All the end-user wants is a product that works.
If you were a composites manufacturer, where would your focus be right now?
Besides focusing on automation, I would emphasize the ‘green’ benefits of composites products, especially in the built environment. If we’re going to build high-performance buildings, can I communicate my product’s green performance?
This is not an easy or quick answer. Our industry still doesn’t know how to characterize its products as green. Other building materials have figured it out. The aluminum industry says it’s green because 80 percent of aluminum is recycled. I wonder about that because with aluminum, you have to figure in the smelting and refinement processes. There is a lot of energy generated here. There’s an initiative within the concrete industry to talk about ‘green’ concrete, but they readily admit that one of the worst offenders of C02 emissions is cement. We’re all trying to answer questions about our environmental impact. How we compare to other materials is the challenge.
That said, are we building green houses? No. Is there a requirement? Not across the board. Can green houses be built? Yes, but I think it still comes down to the price of a home. We all want to be environmentally friendly, but if a green house is more expensive, I’m probably not going to buy it.
And lastly, education is very important along with working on standards and specifications that are keys to market growth.