The biggest threat to growth in composites comes from advances in competing material technology. Alloys of aluminum continue to be the mainstay when it comes to most of the aircraft models, while composites have found opportunities in larger aircraft platforms. Manufacturers of competing materials are also striving to develop next generation alloys that are expected to compete with composites on functionality. While aluminum alloys mainly compete with composites in structural applications, materials such as super alloys and titanium technologies are increasingly finding growth in aero-engine applications due to their superior tribological properties and thermal performance.

The commercial aerospace industry, which has largely been the driver for composites usage, is expected to grow at 5.5 percent through 2022. With a number of aerospace OEMs focusing on composite-intensive models, the demand in aerospace applications is likely to witness strong growth in the near term. The Boeing 787, Boeing 777X and Airbus A350 XWB will primarily lead this effort. In addition, the C-919 from the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd.  (COMAC), which utilizes advanced composites for a big chunk of the body, will be an additional avenue for opportunities. In the longer term, composites also will be expected to find adoption in business/general aviation programs, which in comparison to the commercial aircraft programs previously mentioned are relatively smaller.

The Carbon Fiber Market

By Daniel Pichler, Managing Director of CarbConsult GmbH

In 2016, global demand for carbon fiber increased at a healthy rate of 12 percent to 70,000 metric tons, consistent with the growth rate over the previous two years. Over the last six to seven years, the growth rate has averaged a respectable 10 percent. Not surprisingly, markets driving that growth include aerospace, wind energy and new emerging applications in automotive. Depending on which forecast is used, those markets account for between 35,000 and 45,000 metric tons, and are all of a similar scale.

Many see high potential growth for carbon fiber applications in infrastructure and construction applications given the sheer volume of aging infrastructure in need of repair or retrofit in the U.S., as well as around the world. While infrastructure and construction applications account for only 5 percent of today’s market, the upside potential is significant.

The demand for pressure vessels could grow for the compressed natural gas (CNG) market, both for storage and transportation vehicles, and eventually for hydrogen storage tanks to power fuel cells. As the technology and economics to produce CFRP pressure vessels improves, this technology will be more attractive even at low to moderate energy prices.