Although 2020 has been a difficult year for the automotive industry and composite manufacturers, the long-term outlook for automotive composites is bright. The industry will rise above 2017’s high water mark in the next few years based on the value offered in terms of cost, weight and performance.

The Carbon Fiber Market

By Daniel Pichler, Managing Director, CarbConsult GmbH

Since 2010, the market for carbon fiber has grown from less than 40,000 metric tons to more than 100,000 metric tons in 2019. Growth during this period was smooth and uninterrupted, with a 10 to 12% increase per year. But last year, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the carbon fiber world changed almost overnight.

In 2020, global demand for carbon fiber totaled approximately 105,000 metric tons – just 1% higher than in 2019. And in 2021, only 1% growth is to be expected. (See Figure 3.) To understand the flattening of the market, it’s important to take a closer look at how COVID-19 changed the carbon fiber world.

The market for carbon fiber is fueled by growth in a number of areas, such as aerospace, wind energy, sporting goods, marine, automotive, pressure vessels and others. Until 2020, growth in all of these market segments individually and in the industry as a whole was steadily rising.

With borders shut in early 2020, international air travel stopped, aircraft were grounded, aircraft manufacturers slashed production rates and, in an instant, the carbon fiber industry lost its motor. Carbon fiber use in aerospace applications made up 20% or more of industry volume and 40% of industry value. The slowdown in commercial aerospace severely impacted the carbon fiber industry, and it will likely take several years to recover to pre-COVID levels.

Although the aerospace news was discouraging, not all news in 2020 was bad. As we learned to stay at home, work from home and holiday near home, some markets did well. Demand for sporting goods jumped 30% to 40% in 2020, and installations of wind turbines continued as planned 20% higher than in the previous year.

The breakdown of carbon fiber use by end-use market in 2020 was roughly as follows:

  • Wind energy – 23%
  • Aerospace – 20%
  • Sporting goods, including marine – 12%
  • Automotive – 10%
  • Pressure vessels – 10%
  • Compounding for injection molded plastics and other short fiber applications – 8%
  • Construction and infrastructure – 8%
  • Other market segments – 9%

As in pre-COVID times, all market segments for carbon fiber have significant potential for growth as new applications and programs come into production. The underlying long-term megatrends that made carbon fiber attractive before COVID-19 remain unchanged. The advantages carbon fiber offers – stiffness, high strength-to-weight performance, corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity and others – are still valid today.  For growth to occur, carbon fiber and CFRP parts must demonstrate both technical and economic benefits.