The sporting goods market was a boon to the advanced composites market in the final decade of the 20th Century. Carbon fiber fishing rods were introduced to great fanfare — and sales. Golf shafts and tennis racquets weren’t to be left out and, driven by the growing popularity of cycling races like the Tour de France, carbon fiber bicycles went from pro racing to the street and benefited from numerous innovations and refinements in the 1990s and 2000s, in materials and fabrication methods.
Today, composites are found in products used in 7 of the 10 most popular outdoor sports and recreational activities. Glass- and carbon-reinforced composites (alone or in hybrids with other fibers) continue to replace wood and metal in skis, fishing rods, bowling balls, tennis racquets, spars/shafts for kayak paddles, windsurfing masts and boards, hockey sticks, kites and bicycle handlebars, as well as in niche applications, such as fairings for recumbent bikes. Market research firm Lucintel (Irving, TX, US) estimates that the global sporting goods industry, at retail, is worth US$5 trillion and brings in US$110 billion per year in the US alone.
Although carbon fiber has a strong position in this segment, Lucintel maintains that use of carbon fiber in the worldwide sporting goods market could see its lowest US$1.8 billion in 2013. Notably, the sporting goods segment in China, which is projected by Lucintel in Growth Opportunities in China Carbon Fiber Market 2013-2018 to reach US$408 million by 2018, will consume more carbon fiber (51% of the total) than China’s aerospace and industrial segments combined. Slower growth, says CW commentator Dale Brosius, is attributable, in part, to incremental innovation. Brosius, a composites indutry consultant and the chief commercialization officer for the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), adds, “Today, however, it seems like minor changes are promoted as major ones. In tennis, Wilson introduced a small amount of basalt fiber into some racquets a few years ago, and this year, Head has introduced a racquet with a layer of graphene in the handle. Good for advertising? No doubt. Improved performance for the average player? That might be a bit more subjective.” Increasing regulations in sport also might be stifling innovation, he adds. “In motorsports, Formula 1 was early and eager to adopt carbon fiber, then higher modulus versions, at any cost. Other racing formats began to incorporate composites, but today, each motorsport class has restrictions in place to prevent ‘richer’ teams from dominating. Competitive cycling and sailing also have various restrictions relative to equipment design.”
And for more than two decades, carbon fiber has been the choice for lightweight bike frames in the bicycle racing world. But carbon composites also migrated into the consumer market. Kestrel USA (Philadelphia, PA, US) minted the first-ever production carbon fiber bike frame (1986) and the first all-carbon mountain-bike frame in 1988. In 2004, the company unveiled a new version of its Talon SL road bike. At $3,699, it wasn’t cheap, but its frame weighs in at an astonishingly low 2.4 lb, light even by carbon fiber standards.
Among recent entries was Kemo Bikes’ (Zug, Switzerland) new range of road bikes. The top-of-the-line frame, model KE-R8 5KS, is built using TeXtreme Spread Tow carbon fabrics, supplied by Oxeon (Boras, Sweden). By using spread-tow technology, Kemo has produced a frame that reportedly weighs only 759g. And Grenchen, Switzerland-based Bicycle Manufacturing Co. produces a carbon fiber frame with a uniquely high level of automation and process control, the impec, using a unique radial braiding technology, developed by August Herzog Maschinenfabrik GmbH & Co. KG (Oldenburg, Germany). (Read more in "An impec-able bike frame: Handmade by machine" under "Editor's Picks.")
For many years, of course, composites have been incorporated into headgear and helmets of recreational sports activities, such as skiing and whitewater kayaking. Composites also recently moved into headgear used in wide-participation, mainstream sports: In 2013 Major League Baseball (MLB) and the MLB Players Assn. adopted the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co.’s (St. Louis, MO, US) S100 Pro Comp batting helmet, constructed of aerospace-grade carbon fiber composite, as the league standard. Rawlings says the helmet is 300% stiffer and 130 times stronger than the conventional ABS helmet it replaced, while providing enhanced protection for ball strikes of up to 100 mph.
Yet, despite physical contact on every play and growing alarm about the frequency and severity of head injuries, American football teams almost exclusively equip their players with a helmet consisting of a polycarbonate (PC) exterior shell with an interior lining of foam padding — a basic design that has gone unchanged for more than 30 years. “The innovation in football helmet design has basically been with respect to the interior padding and facemask, and very little to the shell,” says Elizabeth Cates, VP of R&D at Innegra Technologies LLC (Greenville, SC, US).
Composites could finally be making a mark in football helmets: SG Helmets (Brownsburg, IN, US) introduced a helmet of the same name to the market in 2012. The SG is made of Kevlar aramid fiber (from DuPont Protection Technologies, Richmond, VA, US), carbon fiber and epoxy. Testing conducted at Purdue University (Lafayette, IN, US) found the SG helmet was at least 50% better at dissipating forces to the head than the traditional PC helmet. One of the key benefits of the helmet is that it is about half the weight of its predecessors (~0.91 kg). Notably, 40 to 50 players in the National Football League (NFL) have adopted the helmet, a metric that is noteworthy not only because of the short time the helmet has been on the market but also because the SG is targeted to youth league football, at the high school level and below. Although the SG has demonstrated composites viability, research by Cates at Innegra and other interested parties is still ongoing, and competitive products are likely to be introduced (for the whole story, read "Composites tackle concussions" under "Editor's Picks."