Our "liability" is our greatest asset

HIgh-Performance Composites' editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan questions the wisdom of wishing away, for sake of comfort and ease, the complexity of composites when that very attribute is the key to its effectiveness as an alternative to metals.

I am attending our (CompositesWorld’s) annual Composites Investment Forum this week — as I write — in Fort Worth, Texas. CIF presentations emphasize venture capitalization, mergers-and-acquisitions activity, corporate growth strategies and overall composites industry competitiveness.

A recurring theme at today’s session (Oct. 17), and one heard at many other composites conferences, is the competitive disadvantage composites suffer when positioned against legacy materials, such as steel and aluminum. It’s not that composites can’t compete mechanically or physically, but that with more than 100 years of history, metals are a known commodity — their properties and behaviors are widely known, they are relatively easy to design for and their manufacturing processes are highly developed. Metals are well-entrenched and well-understood. Familiarity breeds content.

Composites, on the other hand, despite their decades on the job, are young by comparison and, therefore, not as well known among design and manufacturing engineers. And as noted at the conference, the composites industry remains almost hopelessly disparate, a tangled soup of resin, fiber, tooling and processing combinations that have assiduously avoided standardization for years. This tendency toward great variety makes it difficult for designers and manufacturers to focus on a few resin or fiber types that provide an easy way to comprehend and meet mechanical requirements.

Here at the conference, the argument is that until composites evolve to standardized material and process types that minimize their complexity, becoming more science and less art with a simplified supply chain, they will remain on the manufacturing fringe, chasing the easy-to-use legacy materials. This is, without doubt, a possible outcome, and a plurality of composites professionals will nod sagely whenever this sentiment is expressed at conferences like ours.

However ....

Before we hurry out to wrest order and simplicity from the chaos that is the composites industry, I have a very basic question: Isn’t the variety offered by composites actually the material’s greatest asset? Composites, by virtue of their adaptability, bring to almost every application a material solution that promises to save weight, increase toughness and prevent corrosion and fatigue problems that plague metals, thus prolonging product life. Just by changing fiber direction, or fiber type and direction, or the fiber/core/resin combination, a patient, skilled designer can precisely dial in strength, toughness, durability and weight performance that can dramatically eclipse that of competing metals. Isn’t this ability to mix-and-match to meet mechanical requirements basic to composites’ DNA?

The implication, thus far, is that the composites industry, to mature, must adapt itself to meet the expectations of the manufacturing and OEM community. And this might be true. But it might also be true that the manufacturing and OEM community, if it really believes in the game-changing potential of composites, has its own adapting to do. It might be true that designers who know and love stainless steel and aluminum should go back to school and bone up on carbon fiber and epoxy and ply orientation. It might be true that engineers have to stop thinking of carbon fiber laminate as a drop-in replacement for metals and rethink completely how best composites should be used in an application.

It’s tremendously appealing to look at the arc of history traced by metals and conclude that composites’ “success” lies along the same path. Perhaps, but I think we should be very careful what we wish for.