Aerospace once reigned over the advanced composites market, but a proliferation of materials and consumer demand has other markets following in its footsteps.
The advanced composites market – focused mainly on aerospace and other high-tolerance, low-production rate applications – is often seen as part of a completely different world from the open-molding fiberglass reinforced polymer (FRP) industry. But insight from key members of ACMA’s High Performance Council suggests otherwise: They say that advanced materials used in the aerospace industry are now trickling down into competitive consumer markets – and are essential to the growth of the FRP industry.
In its recently published report “Growth Opportunities in Global Composites Industry 2013-2018,” market research firm Lucintel, Las Colinas, Texas, predicts that the advanced material market will grow faster than any other market in the global composites industry during the next few years. Advanced composite materials offer a way to diversify and improve on existing U.S. consumer products, such as boats and sporting goods that typically use e-glass or vinyl esters.
Here are three ways that high performance composite materials currently impact material usage in the U.S. composites industry:
1. Carbon fiber is giving the marine industry a boost.
Matthew Bodoff, U.S. national sales manager at Gurit, has been working in the composites industry since the 1990s. According to Bodoff, the most notable change to the FRP industry during the past few decades has been the acceptance and use of carbon fiber in traditional fiberglass markets, such as the U.S. marine industry.
“Aerospace companies like Airbus are ramping up, and that’s really driving the growth for advanced materials,” says Bodoff, a member of the High Performance Council. “With more carbon fiber available in the marketplace, boat manufacturers, which are traditionally open molded fiberglass, are switching to carbon fiber.” He notes that carbon fiber sales have “grown exponentially” during the past decade. Statistics from publisher Smithers Apex support Bodoff’s observations, predicting that the global carbon fiber reinforced plastics market will grow at a rate of 16 percent annually during the next three years.
One prominent example of the carbon fiber trickle down from aerospace to marine is the use of high performance materials on all the yachts in the America’s Cup. Crew members of Oracle Team USA completed one of the greatest come-back wins in sports history, sailing at record speeds in the AC72 catamaran. The yacht featured a 135-foot wingsail made from a carbon fiber skeleton comprising a cored nose cone and main spar. You can bet the design was influence by aerospace: Tom Speers, head of wing design at Oracle Team USA, previously worked for Boeing as an aerospace engineer. In addition to the wingsail, the yacht also included carbon fiber rods and hulls.
Not only is carbon fiber a champion in the yacht racing market, but it’s becoming a popular material among amateur boaters, too. “On the recreational side, boat builders are looking for ways to differentiate their product,” says Bodoff. “There’s a large market of good quality used boats that hinders the sale of new boats. The only way to make used boats less valuable is to improve the design on the new boats – and one way is through weight savings. Customers want to go further on a gallon of gas, and carbon fiber offers a solution.”