Everything one hears lately — whether it's reports from the recent SpeedNews Conference in L.A. (see News item, p. 20) or sales statistics and projections from aircraft manufacturers and associations (see News, pp. 21-22) — indicates sales of all types of aircraft are breaking records. An unprecedented 2,300 total aircraft were ordered last year! Record deliveries expected for the next few years, and predictions of 5+ percent growth through 2024, seem to justify current enthusiasm. The simple facts are that everyone wants or needs to travel more, flying is the preferred mode of travel and emerging markets will push the limits for the next quarter of a century.
This surge in demand creates a new environment for all the players. Even the long-suffering U.S. legacy carriers are working their way back to profitability. However, competition for routes and passengers will remain fierce, so "right sizing" aircraft to avoid flying with empty seats is critical, and oil prices will ultimately decide the fate of some. Aircraft OEMs not only must invest in the right type of aircraft for the future, they also must build the most efficient planes possible. This news is great for composites, but so is the pressure to make good business decisions. To prosper, parts manufacturers must design and manufacture components of the highest quality for the least amount of money — choosing the optimum materials and processing method for each application, while competing against traditional materials as well as other composites combinations. And suppliers must provide composite materials of consistent or improving quality while maintaining a predictable price.
Of course, the carbon fiber supply is of concern to all. At the recently concluded SAMPE Europe/JEC Conference, both Toray and Toho announced plans to bring on yet more capacity — about 6 million lb each — within the next couple of years. It's tough to determine with certainty exactly how much fiber is being produced or how much excess capacity exists at a given time, because so much depends on what type and grade of fiber and what fiber count (3K, 6K, etc.) is being run on a given line. (We will publish an update of this situation in HPC's January 2007 issue. It's highly unlikely that aircraft manufacturers will suffer a carbon fiber shortage.
Composites usage in aerospace applications is projected to grow more than 10 percent annually for the foreseeable future, and carbon fiber manufacturers are happy. That is not to say that all of their customers are overjoyed. Prices are higher for fiber (if it's available at all) for new applications. But virtually every carbon fiber producer is currently adding capacity. Carbon suppliers are grappling with providing their nonaerospace customers with adequate supply while predicting demand from a wide range of industrial end-users. This is almost as difficult as predicting carbon fiber capacity!
While I was at the European Pultrusion Technology Assn.'s excellent EPTA Conference, held in mid-March in Budapest, Hungary, I visited the Zoltek carbon fiber production facility. While the tour did not include the precursor plant, I did see the four 1-million-lb commercial-grade fiber lines in production. Two of the lines are brand new, and the plant was impressive. On March 31, the Hungarian government pledged a grant of $14.5 million to Zoltek's Hungarian subsidiary to support modernization, R&D and capacity expansion from the current 4 million lb to 18 million lb by the end of 2009. This is all commercial-grade, heavy-tow fiber intended for nonaerospace applications. Zoltek is committed to adding 600 new employees in Hungary during the expansion.
Not surprisingly, aircraft composites are the theme of this issue, along with our preview of SAMPE 2006. Make a note to stop and see us there in booth #158!