COMPOSITES+POLYCON 2009: Finding reasons to celebrate amidst the downturn

Highlights from COMPOSITES+POLYCON 2009, Jan. 15-17 in Tampa, Fla.

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The recent American Composites Manufacturers Assn.’s (ACMA) COMPOSITES+POLYCON 2009 trade show, Jan. 15-17, took place in cold conditions, both economically and meteorologically. A cold front had visitors to Tampa, Fla. shivering, and the current economic freeze kept attendance numbers down, but neither stemmed the flow of new technologies, products and processes. CT took the opportunity to learn about some significant industry developments on display.

A big development has been work by ACMA’s Fire Committee and Architectural Division to have composite materials incorporated into the International Building Code (IBC) by the International Code Council (ICC). Results have been positive: Presenter Jesse Beitel of Hughes Assoc. Inc. (Baltimore, Md.) described how ACMA has been successful in getting a “foot in the door” by proposing language on composites in the existing Plastics portion of the code (Chapter 26). The new language, approved as submitted by the ICC in September 2008, will appear in the updated 2009 code document, enabling architects and engineers to specify composites under building code auspices in tightly controlled applications, says Beitel. But, to be code legal, composite materials will have to be tested, approved and labeled by an approved quality organization, such as Underwriters Laboratories, and also must meet strict IBC fire requirements (outlined in Chapter 8 of the IBC).

The approved applications are not structural but do include interior and decorative finishes and some exterior finishes, reports Beitel. “This will legitimize fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) and level the playing field with other materials,” he maintains. “We’ll continue to work to get additional language incorporated into the 2009 code during the next cycle.” More information can be obtained from ACMA and the IBC Working Group, which is chaired by Nick Dembsey of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, Mass.).

A noticeable trend at the show was evidenced by a group of papers and presentations on lifecycle analysis (LCA), a substantially complex process of quantifying, via the 14040 ISO standard on environmental management, a part’s total impact on the environment. Ac-cording to presenter Michael Lepech of Stanford University, the analysis — by quantifying everything that goes into a product (power needs, raw materials, etc.) and everything that comes out (solid waste, emissions, etc.) — enables engineers to identify often unexpected energy-consumption “hot spots.” For example, students conducted an LCA of a large composite fish tank for an aquarium vs. a concrete version; somewhat surprisingly, the concrete tank created more environmental issues, despite its much lower cost, because of the greater energy and transport costs incurred when working with concrete. Ashland Performance Materials (Dublin, Ohio) contributed resources for the Stanford study.

An array of other technical papers were available, including an examination of CompForm, an ultrafast automated method for preforming multiaxial fabrics using light-curable binder. Offered by American GFM Corp. (Chesapeake, Va.), the method has been implemented successfully for structural automotive components. Other highlights included a description of a successful all-composite residence completed by Kreysler & Assoc. (American Canyon, Calif.) and a report on the current status of a melt-spun high-modulus polypropylene fiber produced by Innegrity LLC (Greer, S.C.).

Several presentations focused on better business practices: A panel of cast polymer experts advised fabricators to stay in touch with all of the homebuilding manufacturing organizations and sug-gested that they develop a marketing message using the International Cast Polymer Alliance (ICPA) “marketing tool kit,” available on ICPA’s Web site at www.icpa-hq.org, click “Marketing Initiative.”

The event keynote, presented by Roger Tutterow of Mercer University (Macon, Ga.), examined the roots of the current economic crisis and gave plenty of statistics in support of various economic indicators. His conclusions: It may look bad now, but cautious optimism is in order because the credit crunch, in his opinion, will start to ease in the second quarter of this year. Although housing starts are way down, particularly in coastal Florida, California, Las Vegas and along the East Coast, he pointed out that other markets “aren’t so bad,” noting that the remodeling market will provide some opportunities. He also believes that infrastructure projects will grow, providing some momentum, and that bond market trends show signs of recovery.

The nominees for the Awards for Composites Excellence (ACE) were flat-out impressive. They ran the gamut from composite utility poles and rapid preforming technologies to pultrusion incorporating structural core material and uniquely flexible composites. Among the standouts was Ershigs’ (Bellingham, Wash.) entry, a lightning strike protection mast system developed for NASA. It involves poles 104 ft/31.7m tall and 7 ft/2.1m in diameter, with the multi-inch-thick laminate in each weighing more than 50,000 lb/22 metric tonnes. The overall “Best of Show” ACE award went to Berry Plastics Corp. (Franklin, Mass.), reportedly the world’s largest manufacturer of duct tape, for its peel-and-stick building wall-blast reinforcement system, which comprises a +/-45° aramid fiber scrim in an extruded polyurethane matrix. The roll product can be placed by hand easily on a structure’s wall and reportedly will greatly increase blast protection.

Information about other ACE category winners and a showcase of the new products displayed on the COMPOSITES+POLYCON show floor will be presented in CT’s April issue.