A vision to accelerate the composites industry

The composites industry is at a point of no return in terms of demand for growth, but our community lacks a shared vision for eliminating the primary barrier to that growth – namely, the time scale and cost for product-development and certification. Given the growing diversity in composites applications, it is essential that our industry accelerate the development and certification of new composite materials as well as the manufacturing and processing technology if we are to meet the growing needs of our society.

During the next quarter century, composite materials’ unique properties will benefit the civil aviation, defense, alternative energy, leisure and automotive sectors. Yet this growing demand for composite materials and technology is not consistent with the existing 12-year cycle for material and product development, certification and market delivery described by Tom Brand, retired CEO of Fiberite. Brand states that the typical prepreg product takes five years to develop and certify, followed by a typical market life of seven years; hence, a 12-year cycle. Unlike many modern industries such as electronics, the concept of “just-in-time” products is largely absent from the composites field for this reason.

Growing global impact

The significant impact of composites upon the world is evidenced many ways, including the National Academy of Engineering’s selection of composites as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. Another mea-sure is the extraordinary growth of the composites industry; carbon fiber production increased from 26 million pounds in 1998 to 49 million pounds in 2007. Current estimates project that 100 million pounds of carbon fiber will be required in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program alone over the next 10 years.

Especially in the last 40 years, there has been enormous growth of this enterprise — from the discovery of high performance fibers to the recent introduction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. There have been extraordinary advances in composites technology such as: ultra-strength carbon fibers, prepregs, toughened polymer matrices, thermoplastics, automated fiber placement, out-of-autoclave systems, infusion molding, advanced textile preforms, computer-aided design tools, optimum design through part consolidation and adhesives technology.

Simulation provides acceleration

All of these advances pale in comparison, however, to the growth in computing power. Since 1970, computing power has grown from 0.001 to 100,000 million instructions per second (MIPS) and the cost of computing hardware to achieve a billion floating-point operations has dropped precipitously. The potential to utilize the trillion fold increase in computing power and efficiency is the most potent path to accelerating product and material certification, replacing the current “test and more tests” approach with an economic and effective mix of test and simulation. Using simulation to replace some fraction of experimental testing can accelerate the development of new materials, manufacturing processes and their certification by reducing both the cost and time necessary for new product development. Of course, there is a clear need for government, industry, academia and the certification agencies to rally around this idea, each with clearly articulated roles to make simulation-based certification a reality. Further, putting the power of simulation in the hands of entrepreneurs at all organizational levels, from the smallest to the largest, will unleash creative enterprises that have been restricted in the past by the availability of experimental processing facilities in developing new innovations in composites technology.