Incremental thinking just won’t cut it!

Composites industry consultant and regular CW columnist Dale Brosius says if this industry is to have a future that goes anywhere profitable, then we've got to get off the road we're on and map out a whole new way to think about the tasks at hand.

In January, I participated in an American Composites Manufacturing Assn. (Arlington, VA, US) roadmapping workshop that identified hurdles to further penetration of composites in a range of markets. Many are familiar: lack of standards, little confidence in predictive modeling, absence of recycling infrastructure, well-entrenched legacy materials, slow composites processing, end-product variability and industry fragmentation.

There is an old axiom: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road can take you there.” So, when we’re asked to define an ideal future state of the industry, we typically think in terms of how we already do things, and just think about doing them faster, better and cheaper. Then we draw roadmaps that reflect this incremental thinking. I believe if composites are truly to succeed, then we cannot settle for a future that depends on incremental change. We need to make big leaps, which require serious “out of the box” thinking.

In their seminal 1994 book, Competing for the Future, strategists Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad state: “Companies that create the future do more than satisfy customers, they constantly amaze them.” They describe a consortium of electronics companies (including Apple) whose founders “dream of a world in which individuals can use a pocket sized device to cruise the streets of a typical ‘downtown,’ visiting the virtual travel agent, bank or library. Users will be able to send ‘information agents’ zipping into cyberspace to book airline reservations, check on a stock price or review the menu of a local restaurant.” Published in 1994, that vision was probably articulated several years earlier. At that time, few of us even imagined the functionality it described. Today, my iPhone enables all of these things and much more, including watching live events and making video calls.

Getting out in front of the market certainly involves risk. But new technologies can be introduced on a small scale to start. Although I have no insight into BMW’s automotive roadmap, I’m fairly confident that the carbon fiber composite-intensive i3 is not a side street, but rather the on-ramp for the use of carbon fiber in BMW’s main-thoroughfare 5- and 3-series platforms. Many think BMW’s carbon fiber efforts started six or seven years ago, but they introduced the first production carbon fiber roof panels for the low-volume M-version vehicles back in the early 1990s, using a resin transfer molding process much less sophisticated than the one they use today!

Our OEM customers often articulate how easy it is to buy steel or aluminum, from multiple suppliers, that all conform to established specifications, and I have heard my colleagues in composites suggest, of late, that the composites industry should likewise develop common specifications that all suppliers can meet and then compete in the same way as metals suppliers. But I believe that would make composite materials less competitive. 

We must stop thinking of composites as wood, metal or concrete replacements, and stop trying to imitate those same shapes (à la black aluminum). Instead, we should be promoting the ability of composites to assume unique forms and provide greater functionality — and, yes, the resulting product might not look like a traditional airplane, automobile or bridge. Why should it?

Instead of common material properties, why don’t we agree on what properties are needed for design purposes, and have every material supplier provide those, and then let the most innovative and cost-effective of them (rightly) win market share? Further, a common complaint is that thousands of coupons (and millions of dollars) must be expended to obtain design allowables. But is that true? With today’s computing power, that should not be necessary. I am particularly intrigued by Prof. Stephen Tsai’s proposal, in the July 2014 issue of CW predecessor High-Performance Composites, that all necessary allowables could be obtained with less than 100 coupons, and, perhaps, a single molded panel. Others have proposed similar approaches. This is one way to get out of the box, and I hope we can find a way to make his proposal a reality.

Here’s another out-of-the-box thought: We assume that “traditional” materials have little-to no-variability and process flawlessly. The truth? Wood is far from consistent. Steel sheet from different suppliers, in fact, has slightly different behavior, and concrete properties depend very much on the weather. It’s just that these industries have developed processes robust enough to accommodate such variation. We need to go beyond that, with processes that measure material variability in situ and modify the molding conditions on the fly to achieve a consistent end-product.

If we are to build a future that maximizes the potential inherent in composite materials, we have no choice but to set big goals and take the risks necessary to achieve them. Otherwise, we’ll remain on the road we’re on, arriving too late, accomplishing too little.

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