So we have a mixed bag of individual industries and applications driving overall demand for carbon fiber – some down, some up in these COVID times. Those segments that have contracted – especially aerospace – caused the total carbon fiber industry to look relatively flat in 2020, with only very modest growth expected for 2021. However, there is a more favorable long-term outlook. In a couple of years, one can reasonably expect to see a return to more robust year-on-year growth in the carbon fiber industry once again.

As for the industry’s capacity to produce carbon fiber, industry nameplate capacity of carbon fiber producers collectively is approximately 160,000 metric tons – more than enough to satisfy demand in current times. And several producers are planning additional new plants and capacity to satisfy increased future demand.

Finally, we must keep in mind that carbon fiber is still an industry in its early development phase. Aircraft are hand-built at a rate of just one or two per day; other applications slightly higher, but still without automation. Automobiles, on the other hand, are mass produced at rates exceeding one per minute. Today, carbon fiber is still used mostly in low-volume applications. It has not yet robustly demonstrated “mass production.” Surely this will come, but when is not certain.

In summary, COVID has dealt the carbon fiber industry a blow, but it will be temporary. Despite the events of this extraordinary year, the future is promising for carbon fiber, and developments in the next couple of years will be interesting.

The Aerospace Market

By Dr. Terrisa Duenas, Chief Technology Officer, Nanoventures

The aerospace industry has been affected dramatically by a confluence of events in the past couple of years, most notably the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max and the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Nov. 18, 2020, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson rescinded the grounding order issued on March 13, 2019, of the Boeing 737 Max. But the intervening 18 months took a toll on the industry. In addition, both Boeing and Airbus had to temporarily close their facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, both Boeing and Airbus struggle with significant cuts in production rates and lower orders. (See Figure 4.)

As the aerospace industry rebounds, technology solutions informed by innovation will be paramount to its success. Projects harnessing computer power continue to drive composite manufacturing in aerospace. These include integrated computational materials engineering (ICME), which can leverage the flow of data among disparate model frameworks; digital manufacturing, giving rise to digital twins; and the use of analytics to bridge the growing gap between 3D-printed parts and certifiable validation of their integrity.