Looking ahead at composites trends in 2019

Appears in Print as: 'Looking ahead in 2019'

Columnist Dale Brosius predicts 2019 will reveal growth opportunities in infrastructure, wind energy and personal air mobility for composites. 
#perspectives-and-provocations #sustainability #layup


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Each year, when January comes around, it provides an opportunity to reflect on what happened in the year prior, and to prognosticate on what might make headlines or progress significantly in the year ahead. One year ago, in my January 2018 CW column “Driving down costs,” I laid out a handful of technologies to follow in 2018, including advances in manufacturing process simulation, automated layup and molding, and hybrid (continuous/discontinuous fiber) molding. I also suggested composites recycling and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) would advance significantly. All of these would work to drive down the cost of composites.

Indeed, each of these technologies made great strides last year. Manufacturing process simulation tools are finding greater use with composite designers and producers, and Purdue University, under the umbrella of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), has developed simulation “apps,” integrating software from various companies, including Dassault Systèmes, ESI, Moldex 3D and Convergent, among others, using a single input file with the app performing the data handoffs automatically between each step of the process. On the layup side, Voith and Audi have entered production using high-level, automated dry fiber placement followed by resin injection and cure for the A8 model vehicle, while JEC Paris featured layup equipment from additional suppliers that will see deliveries in 2019.

A look around at various trade shows in 2018 revealed numerous prototypes of hybrid molding, both in thermosets and thermoplastics, pointing toward upcoming widespread deployment in automotive components, given typical product development cycles. More companies now offer carbon fiber recovered from scrap textiles, prepreg and cured parts, and I have seen several projects working to take these materials downstream into molding compounds and finished parts. And the IIoT train keeps on rolling. Companies like Plataine (material tracking) and Aligned Vision (in-process inspection of fiber placement) are perhaps the most visible examples in terms of promotion, but there is plenty of development in sensor and signal processing technology across the spectrum.

So, what am I watching in 2019? Rather than technologies, I am looking at three key markets for composites, although technology plays a key enabling role in each. First up is infrastructure, especially in the US. With a divided US Congress starting in January, this may finally be the year for federal funding to rebuild American roads and bridges. It seems this is supported by both Republicans and Democrats, as well as most citizens. While this would certainly be a boost for concrete and steel, I wrote last month that I believe fiberglass rebar is at a tipping point and should benefit greatly from any major infrastructure initiative. Coincident with an overall infrastructure bill, I believe Congress will enact a version of the IMAGINE Act, or something similar, to further research into composites applications in infrastructure.

Next, I think we are moving into a new era for wind energy, which is already one of the largest markets for composites. Following relatively flat years in 2017 and 2018 in terms of new capacity installations, the Global Wind Energy Council forecasts a return to record growth in 2019 and 2020. While some of this is tied to expiring tax credits in some countries (including the US), wind power is being contracted at rates of $0.03/KWh, making it as competitive, and in some instances more so, as fossil fuel energy. A key driver is longer blades, not only onshore, but especially offshore, where we are approaching 100m lengths. This bodes well for the use of carbon fiber in spar caps, especially those made with low-cost production methods such as pultrusion.

Finally, I predict that 2019 will be a watershed year for demonstration of personal air mobility. We won’t see regular “flying taxi” services in 2019, but the sheer number of companies entering this space will be flying test platforms to convince the regulatory agencies, the public and rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber that they have the right vehicles to meet the future demand, as well as meet safety requirements. Uber has announced it plans to conduct limited service of its Uber Air flight services in 2020 in Dallas and Los Angeles. Already, Airbus, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Joby Aviation, Volocopter and others have rolled out concepts or early prototypes. Since these vehicles will have more in common with helicopters than with airplanes, expect to see widespread use of composites to keep weight down, as many will be either entirely battery powered or have hybrid powertrains.

Other markets, including automotive and aerospace, may hold some surprises in store to make 2019 even more exciting for composites. Let’s hope so!