With President Trump’s announcement that the United States will impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, many have wondered if there will be an immediate impact on the composites industry.
According to Marc Benevento, managing director at Industrial Market Insight and a contributor to Composites Manufacturing’s 2018 State of the Industry Report, businesses in all manufacturing industries should closely watch which countries are added to the list of those exempted from the tariffs. While the original announcement seemed to indicate a blanket tariff, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Korea are now all exempt. This, he says, could prompt global metal industries to create back channels.
“Some of this low-cost steel or aluminum could just find its way into the [United States] through Canada or Mexico,” says Benevento. “So Mexico or Canada would be doing more of the secondary processing of parts coming into the United States, which would mean more work for Canada and Mexico and less work for the United States.”
As for the composites industry, Benevento believes the only short-term net gains will come in markets where composites have already gained acceptance, such as aerospace and select infrastructure applications. As Reuters reported earlier this month, because the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is mostly composite, Trump’s aluminum tariff would only increase 787 costs about 0.09 percent. In construction, Benevento specifically cited seawalls and bulkheads as two areas that could see a rise in composite usage.
However, he does not believe the tariffs will make an immediate dent in the automotive market. Currently, market analysis firm Lucintel projects the North American automotive composites market will reach $3.5 billion by 2021.
“When it comes to price, the difference between carbon fiber composite and steel components is generally is a factor of 8,” said Benevento. “So a 20 percent increase in the cost of steel isn’t going to do anything to help that. In automotive, where the [composite material] solutions are 3-5 years down the road, you’re not designing a part as a drop-in for something today. So the effect won’t be immediate.”
Srikanth Pilla, the director of Clemson University’s new Composites Center, agrees that composites still have a huge cost gap to address, but disagrees that FRP technology isn’t ready for mass adoption. Furthermore, he believes the tariffs could, in fact, have positive long-term impacts on the composites industry.