Cherry-picking facts

HPC editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan bemoans the lack of composites knowledge in the wider engineering community.

At its inception, the Internet promised us — among many things — broad, unfettered and easy access to what I will call, for the moment, “truth.” That is, the myriad facts that comprise human existence would eventually be readily available online, thus allowing all of us to make smart, informed choices. A corollary to easier access was the belief that untainted “truth” — unarguable facts — would prevail and elevate the public discourse, allowing us to focus more on higher ideals and less on opinion-driven rhetoric.

Well, here we are. Even if you’re not sure that our decision-making is now smarter, we can agree at least that it’s easier for us to access the information we might want or need to make an informed decision.     The problem, of course, is that most of us have closely held beliefs, and it’s not in our nature to seek data that contradict those beliefs, even when such data is readily available. For that reason, the Internet’s data-rich environment often serves merely as a well from which we draw only the information that reinforces our belief system, thus perpetuating it — sometimes in direct contradiction to established fact.

This tendency to seek belief-supporting data is all around us — even here in the manufacturing community. You would think, given how long composites have been in use, that the unique properties, performance and benefits of this material form would be generally understood by engineers, even those without daily practical experience with them. But carbon fiber, for example, does not enjoy either the long history or trust that metals do. Belief systems built around steel, aluminum, titanium and the like are entrenched and well-defended.

These thoughts formed as I trolled the Internet recently, looking for news about Toyota’s decision to source Toray carbon fiber for use in body panels on a forthcoming production car: I stumbled across an automotive blog full of comment about the Toyota/Toray deal — an anti-composites screed in which posters declared (with the confidence of “fact”) that “resin is vulnerable to UV damage,” carbon fiber composites can’t be recycled, carbon fiber production technology exists completely outside the U.S. (“Where are our engineers?!” someone begged), and carbon fiber composites are not repairable. Thankfully, some posters (more knowledgeable about composite materials and processing) chimed in to set the record straight occasionally, but I saw enough gullible “Wow! I didn’t know that!” responses to false claims that I posted my own reply, with lots of links to HPC Web articles that directly contradict this blog’s collection of “facts.”

Although my effort at one-man firefighting was somewhat exhilarating, it reminded me yet again that age-old misunderstandings persist and are too-easily passed along. It also reminded me that it’s easy to get caught up in indignation about what’s wrong, but it’s better to focus on what’s right.

A good example is this month’s Focus on Design about the Learjet 85 (see "Learjet 85 composite pressurized cabin a cost cutter" under "Editor's Picks," at right). Bombardier is taking a leap with the jet, using a one-piece carbon fiber composite, out-of-autoclave fuselage, designed with composites in mind, not as black aluminum. Or, check out our feature on composites in the fast-growing medical market (see "Medical applications: A healthy market" under "Editor's Picks"). And how about Fiberforge and the U.S. Army’s efforts to develop a new high-strength, lightweight helmet for American soldiers (see "Future combat helmet: Promising prototype" under "Editor's Picks")?

We have plenty of hard fact, not to mention creativity and ingenuity, to support our belief that composites technology is the vehicle that will take us into a very prosperous future. I’d like to see those still holding fast to legacy materials join us, but we’re on our way, with or without them.