Composites 2020: A multitude of markets

Going into 2020, factors influencing composites manufacturing include robotics and automation, out-of-autoclave processes, thermoplastic composites, Composites 4.0 and additive manufacturing.
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CompositesWorld Sourcebook 2020

The manufacturing world likes to think of composites fabrication as a single, global entity that operates to serve its customers’ needs with a variety of highly engineered parts and structures. In reality, however, the composites industry is an amalgamation of many highly vertical markets — aerospace, automotive, marine, consumer, wind, etc. — that consume composite materials in a variety of different ways. This usage is driven by part performance requirements, cost thresholds, regulations and customer demand. For instance, the material, process and cost parameters in commercial aerospace manufacturing are substantially different than the material, process and cost parameters in recreational boatbuilding.

Composite materials can meet such diverse needs because they are so diverse themselves. The array of fiber, resin, tooling, process and finishing options available make possible the fabrication of nearly any composite part for nearly any application. Couple this with the tremendous strength, stiffness, durability and light weight attributes that composites offer and it’s not hard to understand why use of these materials is growing as much as it is.

The highly bespoke nature of composites not withstanding, there are some broad materials and process trends shaping the entire composites industry that bear watching over the next several years. First among these is the effort to get touch labor out of the manufacturing process by increasing use of robotics and automation. This is driven by several things, including a desire to increase consistency and quality, a desire to reduce costs, and a demand for higher volume manufacturing.

Second is the effort to get out of the autoclave. As wonderful as the autoclave is at consolidating composite laminates, it is expensive to acquire and operate. It also can be a production bottleneck that hinders the drive toward higher volume throughput. As a result, out-of-autoclave (OOA) materials and processes — resin infusion, resin transfer molding (RTM) and thermoplastic composites — are being considered more seriously in a range of applications, not the least of which are large commercial aerospace structures. 

Third, thermoplastics in general are on the rise, primarily because of the attributes they offer, including OOA processing, easy storage and handling (compared to prepregs) and easy recycling. 

Fourth is the advent of Composites 4.0, the composites industry’s version of Industry 4.0 — the complete digitization of the manufacturing process, from design to simulation to manufacturing simulation to manufacturing to troubleshooting to part tracking and much more. This is leading to development and use of complex algorithms that will govern thinking machines in the next-generation composites manufacturing environment.

Fifth is the massive expansion of additive manufacturing (AM) in composites fabrication. The initial use of chopped fiber reinforcements in thermoplastic-based AM has led to the use of continuous fiber reinforcements to make discrete parts as well as tooling and mold components. The industry has also seen the advent of thermoset-based AM as well as new processes that combine AM with automated fiber and tape placement. 

All of these technologies spring from and help drive a highly dynamic and fast-changing composites industry, and in CW’s Multitude of Markets articles (see below), you will learn how composites materials and processes are being adapted and applied in each of the major end markets served by composites designers and fabricators. You will also learn how macro trends in each end market affect the composites manufacturing community.


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