There's been a lot going on since I last wrote in September. The SAMPE Technical Conference in Dayton was a busy and fun affair (see p. 16). Attendance was good and at the Museum of Flight, the location of SAMPE's 100th Anniversary Celebratory Dinner, I sat in the composite replica of the 1905 Wright Brother's Wright Flyer III, the first "truly flight-worthy aircraft," built at Utah State University. It must have been "truly" an exhilarating experience to take to the air in that contraption. The American Composites Manufacturers Assn.'s conference in Anaheim was held later the same week and this year's second International Boat Exhibition (IBEX) opened three weeks later in Miami, just a week before Intertech's Global Outlook for Carbon Fiber Conference. It has been a busy fall.
The Carbon Fiber Conference was, as usual, a gathering of the carbon fiber industry's big players, with a couple of notable exceptions in Zoltek and Fortafil. Industry consultant Chuck Segal led a lively discussion on current fiber usage, which he projected to be around 16,500 metric tons of small tow fiber - although Chuck's discussion made it almost painfully clear that, since the demise of SACMA, this number has become increasingly difficult to pin down, even for the experts.
Virtually all of the coming applications were discussed, with experts predicting explosive growth in several. Boeing discussed its 7E7, expected to be 60 percent carbon fiber by weight. Dayton Griffith of Global Energy Concepts spoke about the increasing interest in carbon fiber for large wind blades - citing Vestas' 90m-long blade made with carbon prepreg as the beginning of a trend. Brian Spencer announced that his company has an order for ten 65-ft long production drilling riser joints for the Magnolia Platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There was discussion of fiber usage on the Airbus A380 as well as the growing military applications, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, which are using more carbon fiber. Several speakers outlined low-cost ways to incorporate carbon fiber into parts, using pultrusion, carbon fiber sheet molding compound (SMC), and automated manufacturing methods. One application that hasn't received much consideration yet is the Homeland Security Act's requirement for strengthened, blast-hardened critical structures, for which carbon fiber is, so far, the only qualified material, according to GHL Inc's Tom Goldberg. Interestingly enough, the prognosticators believe that aside from the traditional aerospace and recreational arenas, the biggest growth area will be industrial applications.
The conference answered two questions raised in my September editorial. First, is carbon fiber heading for a boom? The consensus seems to be a resounding YES. My second question, Will there be adequate supply?, was echoed several times during the conference. Those who claim to know say the price of carbon fiber, especially 12K tow and smaller, is going up - some say moderately. We all know that fiber manufacturers must be able to run profitably in order to reinvest in capacity, and several people voiced the opinion that some new non-aerospace applications will be able to absorb a reasonable price increase. Toray appeared to be the only company actively adding new capacity at the present time; its expanded plant in France comes on line in 2004. In the next few years, we may see greater delineation between aerospace-grade fiber and prices and the heavier tow commercial-grade fibers, which sell for somewhat less. The conference confirmed my strong opinion that if your company is looking at a new industrial application that does not require the exceptionally high performance of aerospace grade fiber, develop your manufacturing process using commercial grade and you will face neither a fiber shortage nor significantly higher prices.
Since the conference, I believe that 2004 holds real promise for carbon fiber suppliers, at both ends of the spectrum. This time around, the industry might be better equipped to handle the surge in demand.