Ben Halford CEO, Surface Generation Ltd.

Ben Halford
CEO, Surface Generation Ltd.

Carbon fiber has gained a reputation as a high-end material for efficient airplanes, luxurious cars and performance-enhancing sporting equipment – but it may surprise you to find out about the carbon fiber products in your everyday household supplies and electronics.

In the January/February 2015 issue of Composites Manufacturing, Ben Halford, CEO of Surface Generation Ltd. spoke about his company’s experiences incorporating carbon fiber into the consumer electronics market. Halford followed up with Composites Manufacturing Interviews about the carbon fiber supply chain and its potential impact on the consumer electronics market.

What effect does the carbon fiber supply chain have on the consumer product market? How might this change in the future?

There are a number of principle effects – some more subtle than others. Proximity and profit are the two most immediate. Fast-moving consumer good production is centered around China, so the logistical/economic benefits of operating locally are significant. Margin-wise, today’s aerospace-dominated supply chain is ill-suited to a business environment where relationships, and security of supply are more important than ultimate performance and design. This shift brings more subtle issues of intellectual property  control and governance as Eastern and Western business practices  conflict.

Pragmatism will prevail in a number of ways as the market splits between those who play and those who specialize further. Think ITAR plus plus.

What would you say is the greatest obstacle in the carbon fiber supply chain?

It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. There are a lot of cautious steps going on in the carbon fiber supply chain. Raw material is coming on stream all the time. The issue isn’t the availability of pitch-based or PAN-based materials. They are there. It’s the availability of the prepreg. There are really only two or three serious players in the industry.

How is the availability of the prepreg affecting the carbon fiber supply chain?

Consumer electronics is a cutthroat business where any opportunity to remove anything that does not add value is seized upon. On this basis, while initially prepreg availability is important, in time as the supply chain learns how to work with composites, it will be far less important.

How does the cost of raw materials impact the consumer product market?

It is critical. A multi-location, multi-origin supply chain must fit today’s OEM cost/performance models and justify its existence in competition against established metallic and polymeric alternatives (e.g., injection molding).