Andrew Hopkins is the executive vice president for RheTech Inc., a privately held, reinforced thermoplastics compounder serving the transportation, consumer and construction markets. He is responsible for all commercial, marketing, technical, and new product development activities. Hopkins earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Kent, in the U.K., and a bachelor of science in chemistry from the University of London. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE).
How do economic factors impact acceptance of composites?
Composite materials have the right economics. However, the cost-competition issue is a real chicken-and-egg discussion. If you look at glass fiber polypropylene on a car, it’s been very successfully done and it’s cheaper than any of the other ways of doing it. In regards to carbon fiber, even though we have these interesting alternatives for the source of the carbon, none of these do anything to address the cost issue. Instead, they make it more expensive.
What can be done to address the “sticker shock” that hampers composite adoption?
The industry has had a tough time getting to the economics of the problem. Commodity prices are all over the map and there’s no doubt composites are more directly and instantly affected by oil prices. We’ve got a good performance story and a good environmental story, but we suffer from not having a very good economic story. For many years, the composite industry has been focused on a better mousetrap: very intensive, high performance, costly solutions as fairly exotic replacements for metal in expensive sport cars. You can look at other market segments where there have been successes, and really it’s because there was an absolute need for weight reduction or because of the performance it delivers.
What is hampering composite adoption in the automobile sector?
As an industry we have been having this conversation for at least 30 years. Composites have some very basic, very attractive aspects to them. They’re strong. It’s the given material of choice for designing a multi-component part. When you need a lot of functionality in one part you can’t do that very easily with steel and aluminum. On the face of things, composites should win hands down every time because, among other things, you can simplify the design. The basic question is: Why do they have such a minimal share of the automotive market? We have to get the designers to understand the benefits of composites.