Reflections after 60 columns about composites innovations
Appears in Print as: 'Looking back — and ahead'
In March 2013, I was invited to dinner in Paris by Jeff Sloan and Sara Black of CompositesWorld. Over traditional cuisine in a small bistro, they asked me to consider writing a monthly column in what were then their two magazines, Composites Technology and High-Performance Composites. What topics did they want me to cover? What restrictions would I have? Write about whatever you want, they told me. No restrictions, so long as there is some tie to composites. Reveal your observations, discuss your experience, predict the future, challenge assumptions. The options were wide open. It was managing editor Mike Musselman who so aptly captured all of this in the tagline “Perspectives & Provocations.”
As the adage goes, time flies. At the beginning of 2015, those two magazines became one, CompositesWorld. This is my 61st column. I had no expectation I would still be doing this five years later. After approximately 45,000 words (which could have been many more if not for column length restrictions), I’ve covered a number of topics across the composites universe. In preparation for this look back, I went through all my previous columns, looking for several things: What were the things that surprised me? What did I think would happen that did not? What got me the most excited? What did I overlook? How has my thinking evolved over these five years?
In my initial “provocation,” I asked whether any automaker would follow BMW’s lead (none have done so, yet, to that degree). At the time of that writing, I had not yet visited BMW, but have since visited multiple times and held multiple discussions, each time increasing my appreciation for what the automaker has achieved. And I have mentioned BMW in 14 additional columns. Although it may seem that BMW has pulled back a bit and is relatively quiet, I know it has focused its R&D on those levers that will get the cost of carbon fiber composites where it needs to be for widespread deployment. One result has been an evolution in my own thinking: Rather than BMW’s composite-intensive i Series approach, I see a more practical path to growing the carbon fiber market via adoption of minor levels of composites across millions of vehicles via the “intelligent lightweighting” practiced in the BMW 7 Series.
On the aerospace side, I have mentioned Boeing 17 times and Airbus 15 times these past five years, sometimes to speculate if either would launch a single-aisle replacement with extensive carbon fiber content, at least in the wings. I have been disappointed that such announcements have yet to materialize, and that out-of-autoclave technology for carbon fiber composite aerostructures remains mostly in the realm of exploration rather than production.
During these 60 months, several technical advancements have proven truly eye-opening. 3D printing evolved from building shoebox-sized components, using CAD-derived extruded layers over several days, to building structures weighing tons in a matter of hours, opening all kinds of potential, including low-cost tooling. Digital simulation of manufacturing processes is virtually on par with that of performance prediction; the two are related as the process variables of manufacturing define the real performance of the part. A related topic, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), is starting to provide real-time feedback that validates our simulations and will eventually enable intelligent control of processes. Finally, the number of companies (and respective approaches) involved in recycling of composites has grown explosively these five years. This is very encouraging and addresses a key market need.
My favorite columns include March 2015 (promoting thinking out of the box), January 2016 (musing about what if composites had preceded steel), and October 2017 (my eclipse experience and space exploration).
I’ve been intimately involved with composites since 1984, and what is now clear about those days is “we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” We naively expected widespread adoption would “just happen.” Clearly, enormous progress was made in composites between 1984 and 2013, the most obvious outcomes being the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, the explosion of the wind industry, and all the processing technology created during those years. What I’ve come to realize is the importance of focusing on the long game. Success takes perseverance — and patience.
As I noted in November 2016, innovation in composites is moving more quickly than ever. Anyone visiting JEC World or CAMX is exposed to numerous technical advances, year after year. There are plenty of hurdles we will overcome as composites earn their way onto future cars, planes, turbines, boats, bridges and spacecraft. Assuming CompositesWorld continues to abide my prose, my plan is to be right here — provoking, observing and crediting those future advancements, wherever they occur.
About the Author
Dale Brosius is the chief commercialization officer for the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), a DOE-sponsored public/private partnership targeting high-volume applications of composites in energy-related industries including vehicles and wind. He is also head of his own consulting company, which serves clients in the global composites industry. His career has included positions at US-based firms Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI, US), Fiberite (Tempe, AZ, US) and successor Cytec Industries Inc. (Woodland Park, NJ, US), and Bankstown Airport, NSW, Australia-based Quickstep Holdings. He served as chair of the Society of Plastics Engineers Composites and Thermoset Divisions. Brosius has a BS in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University and an MBA.
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