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Getty Image of an airplane

At the risk of stating the obvious, the attributes that make composites so attractive — strength, stiffness, toughness, durability, light weight — naturally draw them toward structural parts and assemblies. As a result, we see composites applied in markets that depend on that strength and durability to help products operate a high level for many years. These include aircraft, automobiles, wind turbine blades, boat hulls, recreational vehicles, storage tanks, pressure vessels and much more.

As we know all too well, when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, it slammed the brakes on the global economy, triggering layoffs and depressing consumer spending. This disruption, however, was, as economists like to say, asymmetrical. That is, unlike a traditional recession, which tends to be gradual and widespread, a pandemic recession tends to be immediate and variably distributed. Such asymmetry, although somewhat confounding, does offer rays of hope in an otherwise challenging manufacturing economy.

The composites supply chain is constantly thinking about and planning for manufacturing well into the future.

For example, although global commercial air travel is down about 60% compared to 2019, air cargo has increased by almost 30%. Similarly, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RIVA, Reston, Va., U.S.) reports that shipments of RVs were up more than 25% in June, July and August, compared to the same months in 2019. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA, Chicago, Ill., U.S.) reported in August that power boat sales in the U.S. were up 30% in May and June, compared to May and June 2019. And the wind energy industry, which suffered supply chain disruptions when the pandemic started, recovered and spun up 2,546 megawatts (MW) of new power generation in the U.S. in the second quarter of this year — a record for second-quarter additions.

Reflecting some of these ups and downs has been the Gardner Business Composites Index. The Composites Index is the result of surveys composites industry fabricators conducted by Michael Guckes, chief economist at Gardner Intelligence, which is owned by Gardner Business Media, which also owns CW. The Composites Index tracks activity in new orders, production, inventory, backlogs, deliveries, employment and more. An Index value of greater than 50 represents expansion; an Index value of less than 50 represents contraction. In January, the Index was 54.3. In February, it dipped to 49.7. In March it plunged, not surprisingly, to 38.4. Since then, the Index has gradually recovered, and as Michael reports this month, in September (the month of most recent data) it jumped to 53.0.

So, what’s the point of all of this? Two things. First, even if a major end market like commercial aerospace is highly impacted by the pandemic, the dynamic and versatile nature of composite materials gives them a competitive advantage in myriad other products and end markets, which makes them difficult to fully suppress, regardless of the type of recession.

Second, highly engineered, long-life products, like those made with composites, even if thrown off stride by a recession, have a built-in time horizon that, in this case, extends beyond the timescale of the pandemic. This means that the composites supply chain is constantly thinking about and planning for manufacturing well into the future.

Take, for example, urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft, which I explore in the upcoming November issue. These aircraft are not expected to enter service until 2023, followed in 2025-2030 by full industrialization for ramp-up to production volumes of, possibly, tens of thousands of units per year. Anticipating, planning and executing such industrialization demands that the aerospace supply chain serving the UAM market, however disturbed it might be by the pandemic, think well into the future about the materials, resources and technologies that will be required to get the job done — pandemic or not.

These long horizons compel us, occasionally, to do broader assessments about where markets are headed and how materials and processes can get us there. One of these assessments, CW’s annual Carbon Fiber conference, is coming up in November. Carbon Fiber, like everything else in 2020, is online this year, but that does not change the mission and value of this event — to provide a high-quality, thoughtful and thorough look at the carbon fiber supply chain, how it’s been reshaped by the pandemic, and what the next several years might bring. We’ll be there, and I encourage you to join us. For more information, visit www.carbonfiberevent.com. I hope to see you there.