Global shortages are hitting virtually every part of the composite supply chain. Prices are rising, and emerging industries are pushing the limits of available materials. With the supply chain causing concern well before the global COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc by shutting down borders, manufacturers have begun to recognize that the traditional approach to supply chain management must change.

A lack of logistics transparency has proven particularly problematic in the complex composites supply chain. “I think the COVID-19 pandemic was eye-opening for everybody,” points out Thorsten Wuest, assistant professor for smart manufacturing at West Virginia University. “It unveiled the underlying issues that have been building for quite a while.” One of the primary issues is limited visibility into the supply network.

Greater supply chain visibility allows companies to track raw materials, components, sub-assemblies and final products as they move from supplier to manufacturer to consumer – from production to end use. Having access to the inner workings of their supply chain helps companies make informed decisions about their operations and reveals possible risks in the existing chain. It can also open doors to new business partners, as members of the Utah Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI) have learned. UAMMI is driving a nationwide effort to connect composite manufacturers with customers and strengthen localized supply chains to help companies respond more quickly to changes in demand.

Despite the current challenges, including raw material shortages, there are ways for companies to build new levels of supply chain resiliency by assessing their manufacturing ecosystems, digitizing information and evaluating and growing their pool of suppliers. Ultimately, they can gain greater control over their supply chain, remain competitive and ensure that customers have the right products at the right locations and the right time.

Weathering Supply Shortages

As is the case for many industries right now, composites fabricators and their clients are witnessing a range of raw material shortages and resulting price hikes. For example, prices for styrene and petroleum-based composite materials began climbing even before winter storm Uri hit the Gulf Coast in February 2021, shutting down U.S.-based refineries and petrochemical plants key to resin supply.

Babu Vineeth, vice president of the Composites Association of New Zealand, reports limited availability of resin options due in part to supplier monopolies among Asian material suppliers. While the U.S. trade war with China drove delays and price increases around some Asia-sourced materials, China’s increasing consumption of the materials it once largely exported is adding to supply bottlenecks. Supply delays from China have led to an extreme shortage of fiberglass rovings, Vineeth adds.