CompositesWorld’s latest High-Performance Fibers conference held in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 9-10, 2010, and its carbon fiber twin in La Jolla, Calif., Dec. 7-9, 2010, once again displayed why American advanced fiber producers are leading innovators in the national manufacturing base. (See HPC’s coverage of these conferences by clicking "2010 review: High-Performance Fibers conference" or "Carbon Fiber 2010: Conference highlights" under "Editor's Pick's" at top right.) Important contributions to national security stand out, but the extraordinary materials made possible by the rapidly expanding platform of U.S.-produced high-performance fibers also serve many significant commercial markets. So it’s no surprise that they get high priority in foreign capitals for government-backed industrial strategies.
As examples, China, South Korea and, more recently, the European Union have selected this sector for special support. China’s plan is a targeted expansion of “strategic emerging industries” from its current 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 8 percent in 2015 and a startling 15 percent in 2020. Advanced materials that rely on the full array of high-performance fibers comprise a core target in this strategy. Meanwhile, the European Commission has released its own plan: An Integrated Industrial Policy for the Globalisation Era. Advanced materials are tagged as a “key enabling technology,” positioning the sector to benefit from state aid, targeted public and commercial procurement and other initiatives designed to give advantage to E.U.-based producers of high-performance fibers.
Nothing remotely like this exists in the U.S. The government projects that deal with advanced materials tend to be mission-focused, mostly for military ends, but also for specific program objectives on safety, energy diversification and efficiency, and the like. In this fragmented setting, it is important to note that U.S. high-performance fiber producers and downstream advanced materials customers seem underorganized in their capacity to identify and assess the competitive implications of these significant foreign strategies, which target the entire sector. Even the largest U.S.-based firms are limited in their ability to confidently assemble, track, forecast and weigh the competitive effects of foreign government programs that have implications for global markets. Smaller firms, standing alone, cannot hope to stay abreast of these developments.
This persistently foggy understanding of major foreign government support in a sector as important as advanced materials poses a big risk for American producers. Manufacturing communities worldwide have recently seen what similar inattention means to firms reliant upon rare-earth-dependent inputs. Absent a serious effort to understand, assess and develop appropriate responses to foreign government-backed development strategies, U.S. producers of high-performance fibers can expect to be confronted with similar surprises. U.S. government-sponsored materials development projects, with limited national-security exceptions, are open books. Access levels that are common here are rare elsewhere.
Staying informed about foreign government strategies is just one public policy topic calling for coordinated attention by U.S. advanced materials producers. Optimal trade-agreement outcomes is another. Such results proceed only from informed and focused advice on tradeoffs that arise during negotiations. That need continues through agreement implementation, rulemaking and ongoing administration of accords. Similarly, effective responses to unfair trade practices that harm American-based firms almost always benefit from the collective engagement of affected producers. It’s no different for safety and environment regulations, including the testing, sampling and operating data needed to identify best practices and guide policies to administered rules that are both fair and effective.
In U.S. practice, trade associations take the lead in early warnings, evaluation, and follow-up advocacy on public policy developments. This includes facilitating discussion — appropriately, in legal terms — and offering collective advice to the federal government about policies and programs important to an industry’s well-being. When there is no consensus, associations ensure even-handed availability of information and procedures needed for individual firms to participate in the government’s deliberations. At one time, the Suppliers of Advanced Composite Materials Assn. (SACMA) managed these important roles for the high-performance fibers sector, but SACMA ceased operations in 1999.
A decade later, high-performance fiber producers are even more significant contributors to America’s industrial base. It’s time for a fresh reassessment of this vital sector’s approach to public policy.
Editor’s note: AFMA has created the High Performance Fiber Council to work on public policy initiatives for U.S. producers and related firms. For more information about the Council’s activities, contact membership director Diane Bayatafshar, Tel.: (703) 875-0432; E-mail: email@example.com.