There continues to be great opportunity to expand the market share of composites in the automotive industry. In the short term, the need for lightweight structures to aid in meeting rising regulatory hurdles will drive new applications of composites. Although a relaxation of fuel economy standards in the United States could serve as a barrier to the adoption of composites in the short term, the introduction of electric powertrains and autonomous vehicles will create a new wave of opportunity for these materials. Uncertainty around the timing and magnitude of that opportunity is a source of apprehension for OEMs and material suppliers alike.
The Chinese Market
By Ray Liang, Ph.D.
Managing Director, NSF Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure
With more than half of the world’s total construction taking place in China, the country is a leading driver of composites. For the past decade, the huge demand for advanced materials in the fast-growing automotive, railway, construction and wind energy industries has revolutionized the Chinese composites industry. Remarkable advances have been made in raw materials, sandwich core and auxiliary materials, manufacturing techniques, tooling, design technologies and a magnitude of applications.
The Chinese GFRP industry did not take off until around 1995, while the composites industry in the United States was in full swing in the early 1970s. With rapid growth for the past two decades, China has become the world’s largest producer and supplier of glass fiber. Today, the Chinese glass fiber composite industry has a market size twice as big as in United States. The primary vertical segments utilizing GFRP in China include electrical, transportation, construction, water treatment, wind energy and chemical. (See Figure 4.)
Glass fiber production has arrived at a capacity of 3.85 million metric tons, with Jushi, Taishan and Chongqing producing more than 60 percent of that total. There are approximately 5,000 companies involved in composites manufacturing in China, leading to shipment of 4.62 million metric tons of glass fiber composites annually.
Chinese industry began to research, develop and commercialize carbon fiber about 35 years behind industrialized countries, and the market is still in its infancy. The Chinese government and industry started to invest in the production of carbon fibers in 2000. In 2017, there were only seven companies capable of producing more than 1,000 tons of carbon fiber per year to meet China’s domestic markets. Big gaps exist between the Chinese carbon fiber industry and industrialized countries in terms of quantity, quality, performance and variety of applications. Currently, CFRP composites in China are almost equally consumed for sports and leisure products and general industry, such as wind energy, automotive, transportation and construction.