CompositesWorld’s Carbon Fiber 2014 conference (Dec. 9-11, 2014, in La Jolla, CA, US) had just kicked off as this issue went to press, but the CW staff captured the following highlights from day one of this annual event.
In a report on his experience as the raw material purchaser for the Boeing 787, John Byrne, VP aircraft materials and structures at Boeing Commercial Airplanes (Seattle, WA, US), noted that the composites industry’s relative youth (compared to metals technologies) was a substantial handicap. The new materials and processes strained Boeing’s engineering resources and their implementation involved capital cost expenditures that were not fully anticipated, especially as the build rate increased. Further, he said the extensive use of composites in the 787 does not guarantee similar use in future craft. In short, he said, “It’s going to be a tougher sell in the future to go to an all-composite airplane.”
Mike Canario, VP/GM Americas at Hexcel (Stamford, CT, US), discussed the economics of carbon fiber supply and the metrics that drive capacity expansion. He noted that the high cost of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor combined with high capital equipment costs for new carbon fiber manufacturing lines put a great deal of pressure on carbon fiber suppliers to maximize asset use to meet their cash flow requirements. This means that capacity expansion to meet demand is done, perhaps, more carefully and deliberately than carbon fiber consumers might like. “Under-utilized assets are the scariest thing for carbon fiber makers,” he said.
“I feel the industry has really moved forward now, and we’re well-set for the future.” That was how consultant Tony Roberts summed up his annual overview of carbon fiber supply and demand. With the caveat that his numbers are quite conservative, Roberts opined the following: Although excess capacity exists this year, demand in 2015 should be 65,000 MT (less than the 76,000 MT he predicted in 2012) for all fiber types. Looking forward, 2020 demand will be 120,000 MT and by 2025, he foresees 170,000 MT, representing a value of US$4.72 billion. Lower-than-expected demand from automakers is the principal reason his 2014 figure falls short of his earlier forecast. On the supply side, Roberts predicted that by 2025, Japanese-owned companies will produce more than 50% of global carbon fiber (85,000 MT). Fiber suppliers based in the US and those in Europe will each, as a group, produce a roughly identical 10% (12,000 MT). China and Taiwan together could account for 10% (about 15,000 MT), but Roberts added the caveat that China’s role is far from certain in the next 5 years because limited precursor supply and quality are currently barriers for startups. Other Asia-Pacific suppliers will produce another 11%. Producers based elsewhere in the world will supply the remainder (about 5,000 MT).