Key takeaways from JEC World 2017

A quick read of the composites tea leaves after JEC World 2017.

It’s Friday, March 17, as I write this, and JEC World 2017 is not yet 24 hours behind us. I have had only one (spectacular) Italian dinner at a Parisian restaurant and one (delicious) breakfast of omelet and croissant to contemplate all that was seen and heard. With the help of senior editors Sara Black and Ginger Gardiner, who covered the show with me, 
I have begun to put the event into perspective. Here’s my (our) first take.

First, let’s deal with the superficial. JEC is the industry’s largest event, attracts the biggest crowds and the most exhibitors with the most elaborate exhibits. The 2017 show continued this trend. There was the usual collection of high-end vehicles (i.e., the Aston Martin DB11), Formula 1 cars, elaborate and large parts and manufacturing demonstrations. The aisles were crowded with people from all regions of the world, and the show had a good, positive vibe that exuded optimism and confidence.

The value of JEC, however, is not found in its sheer busyness, but rather in the fact that many of the people and companies that drive the industry forward are gathered in one building for three days and — by virtue of the material and technologies they present to the world — offer some insight into how composites might be evolving. It then falls to myself, Sara and Ginger to get beneath the superficial and discover what’s motivating that evolution.

From an end-market perspective, the dominant motivator appeared to be automotive, and this is significant given the historical pre-eminence of aerospace (more on that below). Indeed, the most intriguing announcements in Paris were usually targeted toward automotive applications. New snap-cure thermoset resin systems, new machinery, thermoplastics, collaborative auto parts development projects, and composite wheels were complemented, not surprisingly, by lots of auto-related developments involving three dominant fast-cycle-time processes: compression molding, injection overmolding and HP-RTM. What remains to be seen, however, is just how energetically automotive OEMs will embrace the composites largesse being laid at their feet.

Next is multimaterialism, which, if JEC is an indicator, is here to stay. We found abundant evidence of parts manufacturers combining a range of composite materials with not only aluminum and steel but with each other, in a variety of applications, to put the right material in the right place to meet a specific need.

Under the banner of productivity, we found a host of products and technologies designed to push composites manufacturing further out of the touch labor world and into automation: Robotic work-cells, automated layup, real-time/inline inspection and Big Data management and manipulation. Data management seems particularly promising — and daunting — but it is clear that customers are asking composites fabricators to become more adept at gathering, assessing and then acting on manufacturing data to prove capability, substantiate audits and become more efficient and productive.

As important as aerospace is to our industry, it might have been difficult at JEC, with the naked eye, to accurately gauge its significance. A little digging, however, revealed that there is much jock-eying and positioning ahead of what likely will be the next big programs: Boeing’s New Midsize Airplane (NMA, or 797) and the expected redesigns of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. Indeed, in this interregnum between the 787 and A350 XWB program ramp-ups and these follow-on program launches, there is a great deal of work in progress on aerospace thermoplastics, out-of-autoclave processing, fiber and tape placement layup speeds, inline inspection (noted above) and nondestructive evaluation. The over-riding question here is, How will composites be used on next-generation commercial aircraft? Composites in wing structures seems a foregone conclusion. On the fuselage the jury is still out and leaning toward aluminum, but the door isn’t yet closed to composites.

Of course, there is much detail that can’t accompany my short narrative here. Sara, Ginger and I will file detailed reports of all 
that we saw and heard at JEC. You’ll find a full accounting on the CompositesWorld site in the CW Blog (plus series of video reports we produced from the show, published on the CompositesWorld YouTube channel), and we will publish highlights in the CW May issue.