The JEC World show in Paris (March 8-10) is the composites industry’s largest exhibition but also a conundrum: On one hand, it offers a vast and varied array of composite materials, equipment and technologies that cannot be found at any other single event in the world. On the other hand, that vast and varied array of composite materials, equipment and technologies is increasingly challenging to sift through.
Walking, indeed, running the aisles of the show, there is no shortage of intriguing composite parts prominently displayed, ranging from the easily identifiable to the difficult to discern. As editors and reporters, my staff and I arrive at such exhibits tasked with separating the real from the conceptual in an effort to help you (the reader) understand where and how the composites industry is evolving.
So, questions are asked: Is the part new? What is the application? Is it a demonstrator? Is it in production? How was it designed? What is the fiber type? What is the resin type? What other materials were involved? What is the tooling? What is the process? How was it finished? What is the cycle time? Who is the customer? What end markets is it targeted toward? Repeat at every stop in the buffet of new products and technologies and we’re soon drinking from the proverbial firehose.
After you do this for three days, however, some themes emerge — markers of innovation and creativity. You’ll find in the May issue, next month, highlights of what we discovered at JEC, including a review of the most notable new products. Until then, however, here’s my 30-second JEC elevator speech.
Multi-material automotive: JEC seemed to confirm the scuttlebutt we’ve been hearing for months regarding composites use in automotive — automakers are increasingly material-agnostic and eyeing multiple material types for future cars and trucks. Exhibit A in this category is the body-in-white structure for the BMW 7-Series, which was on the SGL Group (Wiesbaden, Germany) stand at JEC and the object of much poking and prodding by show-goers. Unlike BMW’s highly composites-intensive i3 and i8, the 7-Series features a mix of aluminum, steel and carbon fiber. The latter is used selectively to meet specific mechanical requirements. Expect more of this in the next few years.
Thermoplastic composites: There seems to be no end to the tinkering being done with thermoplastic materials, for automotive and aerospace applications. Topping the list is Teijin (Tokyo, Japan), which finally raised the curtain on its Sereebo molding process for fabricating primary automotive structures. It combines nylon 6 with a carbon fiber mat in a compression molding process. CW also got wind of an all-thermoplastic, in-situ-cured aircraft wing under development, which we’ll dive into later this year. And getting a lot of attention at JEC was a Boikon (Leek, The Netherlands) tape layer, developed with Fokker Aerostructures, depositing thermoplastic tapes and tacking them in-situ with ultrasonic welding.
The Boeing 757X: Now that Boeing, Airbus and the composites industry have begun the decades-long task of digesting the 787 and A350 XWB aircraft, the aerospace supply chain is looking ahead to the Next Big Programs. Redesigns of the 737 and A320 appear to be at least 10 years away, but Boeing could decide relatively soon to redesign the single-aisle 757, mainly to compete with the long- range version of the A321neo. A 757X would, conceivably, include composite wings and possibly a composite fuselage like the 787’s.
M&A: I am ill-equipped to speculate credibly about who will gobble up whom in the next few years, but I do know that the composites industry on the whole is highly fragmented and ripe for consolidation. Further, Solvay’s recent acquisition of Cytec has raised many eyebrows inside and outside the industry. Thus, it’s not hard to imagine that CEOs and presidents of other very large chemical companies might be looking at the composites industry supply chain and wondering if there is a technology or material to buy up that might be a good fit. My advice: Be willing to be surprised.