When I have the opportunity to talk to architecture or engineering students about composite materials, I like to ask them, "What do you think the oldest known use of composites is?" Usually, I get answers like "boats" or sometimes "aircraft parts." I used to think composites went back to biblical times, when an Egyptian pharaoh took straw (the reinforcement) away from the Israelites so they couldn't make bricks. As it turns out, that was recent compared to signs that the Neolithic people made composite shelters. Then Kreysler did a project with the American Museum of Natural History, digitally enlarging a 50-million-year-old embryo of an oviraptor. You guessed it, oviraptors made composite nests from mud and grasses.
Okay, maybe that was a trick question. How about this: "When was the first time someone figured out the material properties of a composite and how it interacted with other materials, and then designed a product that used those properties?" You might say, "1945," remembering the early military use of composites with glass fiber. Sorry. Semitic people designed a composite archery bow 3,000 years ago, which doubled the power of contemporary weapons, using laminated animal tendon, wood and bone held together with animal glue (technically, a polymer resin). The Hyksos tribe used this bow to conquer Egypt. They could fire arrows from horseback at a full gallop and hit a target at 100m (228 ft). So compared to concrete and certainly compared to steel, fiber-reinforced materials are ancient.
The important question is, What happened? Why did composite materials fall out of favor and nearly disappear? The answer is, the Industrial Revolution happened. Today, we operate in a world designed around "assembly" of premanufactured materials. The people who make steel from iron ore are not the same people who stamp parts from it. And someone else, again, assembles those stamped parts. Unlike with wood or steel, you can't go to the store and buy sheets of composite and screw or rivet or weld them together to make an airplane or boat. Because composites derive their unique properties through directional orientation of fibers in a matrix, the purpose of the product needs to be identified before the composite can be made. The composite doesn't exist until the product exists.
Making composite products is a craft. Even today composite fabrication requires a level of craftsmanship far beyond filling a form with Portland cement or bolting and welding steel together. No one familiar with sophisticated composite products would disagree that the level of craftsmanship needed to successfully produce a state-of-the-art composite product is far above that required from welders, carpenters, masons and the like in the traditional trades. Superb composite fabrication approaches an art and — out of step with our assembly-line world — its practitioners need to be skilled at several disciplines.
Before the 19th Century, craftsmanship was nurtured, even honored. But today, we admire a beautiful handcrafted piece of furniture because we are surprised to find examples of fine craftsmanship, not because it's expected. And therein lies one of our greatest challenges. Growth for our craft and, therefore, for our industry will depend on an ever-increasing supply of craftspeople talented enough to understand the complexities of our materials and willing to get their hands dirty. Meanwhile, we are teaching our engineers theoretical composite properties but not how to go out in the shop and make composites. Until our high schools rediscover the need to nurture craftsmanship; until our colleges and universities start teaching young engineers the HOW's of composite manufacturing as well as the WHY's, our industry will not reach its full potential.
In construction I've often heard that architects shouldn't be allowed to design a house they couldn't build themselves. We worked with Holt Hinshaw Architects, a firm in San Francisco where employees are rewarded when they spend time away from their computers and actually apprentice at a fabrication shop or a construction site. Several of them spent time laminating fiberglass at our shop and came away with a new understanding of our material, which resulted in several projects using composites on buildings. In our shop, nobody sits at a desk designing unless they spend at least as much time in the shop building, Likewise, composite engineering schools shouldn't let students graduate and specify a laminate with 2 percent void content unless they can go out into a shop and make it themselves. A good composite education is like a good composite product — all the pieces have to be treated equally and brought together properly to achieve the best result.