2003 is nearly history. It's been another unsettled year for the composites industry. Resin manufacturers have been especially hard hit by gas/oil prices, both for feedstocks and energy. Resin price increases put through earlier this year are said to be holding at around 5 percent - but haven't yet offset raw material and energy increases. Manufacturers say they sold more resin his year but reaped less profit. Next year, however, looks better for everybody. Material suppliers and users should benefit from the current global economic stabilization. Barring unforeseen events, the U.S. is in a strong recovery mode - with economies in Asia, South and Central America, and Europe reporting growth in manufacturing, as well.
That said, I'd like to weigh in on the trade show debate that has been a hot topic of conversation lately. In the last few years, the JEC Conference, held annually in Paris, has grown, becoming the composites industry's largest trade event. In September, however, a group of large resin manufacturers announced its intention to sit out next year's show, citing the high cost of exhibiting and an insufficient number of new products to warrant an annual event. Others are of the opinion that a show in the same location every year is limiting - especially with markets outside Europe showing great growth potential. Meanwhile, in the U.S. there is talk of the American Composites Manufacturers Assn. (ACMA, formerly the Composites Fabricators Assn.) hosting a joint conference with the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) in 2006. And I hear talk of the need for a major trade forum in the growing Asia Pacific region.
Let's look at some history. Until the early 1990s - a mere 10 years ago - the "really big show" was the U.S. SAMPE conference, followed by the SPI Composites Institute's (CI) annual conference. SAMPE, a technical society, still hosts a smaller but excellent annual U.S. conference/exposition, which is sponsored by volunteer chapters and focused primarily on aerospace and other high-performance composites applications. The CI venue was heavy on automotive and targeted companies involved primarily with fiberglass applications. There also were numerous conferences held throughout Europe and a few in Asia, as well, but I don't believe any as large asthe two U.S. meetings.
Then CI fell apart. It had a reputation for being expensive and dominated by large material suppliers. When some members of its board revolted in 1999, recommending that fellow CI members quit and join the rival CFA, CI went the way of the dinosaurs - all the more quickly because Owens Corning made public its intention to pull out of CI's annual trade show in Cincinnati. The CFA, (now ACMA) was started some 20 years ago by a group of fabricators (as we used to call them) many of whom were disgruntled ex-CI members, as well.
Not too surprising. In a relatively small industry like ours, it may be possible to support both a technical association and a trade group, but two similar organizations with duplicate functions in the same locale made no economic sense. With CI gone, CFA's annual conference grew to its present stature. Under the new ACMA banner, the association continues its excellent work in composites workforce education and as the industry lobby for practical environmental guidelines.
Which brings me to JEC. Despite the numerous composites trade shows in Europe, the times, economic happenstance and a few other things conspired to JEC's advantage. When Owens Corning and several other large suppliers decided to exhibit in Europe exclusively at the French conference, JEC gained dominance. At that time, I believe, the JEC was still a nonprofit French composites association, similar to the CFA. I attended those early events, and they were moderately well attended shows, but the conferences were very lightweight, technically.
When SAMPE Europe stepped in as cosponsor of the Paris show, the conference improved dramatically, attracting exhibitors and attendees from aerospace, automotive and other disciplines. For several years at the turn of this century, Europe's economy boomed while the U.S. stagnated. Everyone was in a rush to do business in Europe: European automakers were ahead of everyone else, especially in the design and manufacture of thermoplastic composites, and there was great excitement about Airbus' new A380, which was then in the material selection phase. With good management, JEC became the big international gathering that we have recently enjoyed.
But that, as they say, was then. This is now. Given today's global realities, does the industry really need a big show every year or should it be held every two years? And is it wise, going forward, to hold it in a single location? I'd like to hear your opinions. Email them to email@example.com. Of one thing, we can be sure: Things will change over the next 10 years, just as they have over the previous decade. In an industry with as much potential as composites offer, I predict a lot of change ... for the better.
Happy New Year!