Advancing technology in a multinational world

What collaborative scenarios can we create that leverage assets in multiple countries and get to solutions faster?

The month of March brings the annual migration of composites researchers, manufacturers, specifiers and end-users from points near and far, to Paris for the JEC World exhibition. The largest of its kind, JEC World offers attendees and exhibitors alike the opportunity to assess the health of the composites marketplace and see the latest in machinery, processing, materials and applications. One comes away from JEC with an appreciation for the industry’s breadth and reach.

Markets served by those who offer composites technologies are, indeed, global in scope. In the automotive industry, BMW assembles vehicles in seven countries, Mercedes in 11, Ford in 16, and both Volkswagen and Toyota in more than 20 countries worldwide. Although some models are designed for local markets, each OEM is seeking lighter, more durable, more sustainable solutions for future production.

In aerospace, Airbus assembles commercial aircraft in four countries, including China and the US, and sources components and assemblies from numerous countries outside of Europe. The recent Airbus and Bombardier C Series alliance extends that reach to Canada as well. Although all Boeing aircraft are assembled in the US, Boeing facilities in Canada and Australia engineer and deliver key subsystems, and major components, including carbon fiber wings, are sourced from suppliers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere. Boeing’s proposed acquisition or joint venture with Embraer aims to include assembly in South America. Even Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II has subassemblies shipped to Fort Worth, TX, US, from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK.

The largest user of composites by volume, the wind energy industry, is also highly globalized. Ever-increasing blade size has made fabrication nearer wind farm locations a practical necessity. With the acquisition of LM Wind Power, General Electric now builds turbine blades in at least 13 countries. Siemens Gamesa has blade facilities in nine, and Vestas in seven. Even independent blade fabricator TPI Composites builds blades in four countries. All of these maintain blade factories in China, the fastest-growing market.

Although most composites-based sporting goods and electronics are built in Asia, both are sold into global markets. Pressure vessels and products designed for the oil and gas, infrastructure and construction industries are made and sold globally. It’s hard to find a segment in the composites universe that isn’t worldwide.

Each of these market segments is served by a host of multinational suppliers at the Tier 1 and materials levels. This is especially true within the automotive segment, where, at the request of their OEM customers, Tier 1 suppliers establish facilities close to the final assembly points.

In contrast to the above, the university systems tasked with educating future generations of composites scientists and engineers, together with the host of research institutes and consortia are, with very few exceptions, single nation-based. This industry/academia mismatch creates some systemic friction: The composites industry must address increasingly global technical issues. But its OEMs and their suppliers feel pressure to work with local or national universities and institutes to take advantage of government matching funds when an international coalition might approach the topic most effectively. Although recent advances are quickly disseminated though conference proceedings, refereed journal submissions and in trade publications, such as CompositesWorld, global issues are, at best, incrementally addressed.

I first drew attention to this issue in March 2016, less than year after the start of operations of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) in the US. I noted that governments, which provide base funding for research institutes and universities, have a vested interest in promoting the relative competitiveness of their in-country manufacturing bases. Yet, as many have noted before, major topics — modeling/simulation, composites recycling, reduced energy consumption, speed/efficiency, and workforce development/education — are  global needs for multinational OEMs and their suppliers.

What can we do to address these topics from a research perspective, and make composites as ubiquitous as competing materials? What sort of collaborative scenarios can we create that leverage assets in multiple countries and get to solutions faster? At IACMI, we are in discussions with one European consortium regarding jointly funded research projects, student exchanges and other topics. Along this line, I am working with the JEC Group to organize an initial gathering of many national composites institutes and clusters at JEC World to, at the very least, get acquainted and agree on the most important research and education needs of our industry members. In time, we can explore how we might establish international projects to address those needs. How far can we get? Who knows? I’m excited to find out.