A Look at Materials, Manufacturing Processes and Markets in 2016 and Beyond

In the composites industry, one of the best ways to judge success is to look at end product demand. The demand for composite end products – ranging from utilitarian underground pipes to high-performance aircraft – reached $21.2 billion in 2014 and stayed the course in 2015, reaching $22.2 billion.

The U.S. composite materials industry grew 5.6 percent in 2015 in terms of dollars shipped and reached $7.5 billion overall. Looking ahead, the key economic indicators and market dynamics suggest 2016 growth at approximately 5.4 percent to reach $7.9 billion. Approximately 5.7 billion pounds of composite materials were shipped in the U.S. in 2015 and that number is forecast to grow to 6.9 billion pounds in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.2 percent. 

Raw Materials Outlook

Any examination of the industry requires a closer look at the status of reinforcements and resins. This year, Lucintel expects increased innovation in the development of low-cost carbon fibers across a wide variety of mass volume applications. Carbon fiber is significantly more expensive than glass fiber, so it is mainly used for high-performance applications where weight saving requirements are critical. There are a growing number of research projects around the use of lignin or other precursors to reduce the price of carbon fiber. Specific applications are driving carbon fiber demand in the U.S., including the rising use of carbon fiber in next-generation aircraft, electric and sports cars, and wind turbine blades, which are getting increasingly longer.

While carbon fiber is making inroads in the industry, glass fiber remains in high demand. Over the last 70 years, glass fiber has been used in thousands of applications and has thus demonstrated an excellent track history. Lucintel anticipates increased development of high-performance glass fibers to meet higher mechanical and chemical requirements, as well as development of high-strength natural fibers to increase penetration in automotive, construction and other industries.

In the resin market, four trends will continue for next year: shorter cure times for mass volume applications, development of resins with optimum gel times for long wind blades, development of low-cost and high-strength nano-resins, and development of bio resins for various applications. Despite these advances, in many industries – such as construction, marine and automotive – polyester resin continues to be the workhorse because of its low cost and high corrosion resistance.

One issue in the composites industry remains the lack of standardized grades of raw materials, which hinders widespread use of CFRP and GFRP.