Reflections on carbon fiber

Highlights from the December 2018 Carbon Fiber conference include industry leader predictions about commoditization of composites, next-generation aircraft and automotive.

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Each fall, CompositesWorld hosts the Carbon Fiber conference, and in early December I attended the 2018 version in La Jolla, CA. It was my 11th Carbon Fiber since I became editor-in-chief of CW in 2006, and it was, as usual, full of highly informative presentations, highly engaged attendees, and sponsors and exhibitors invested in the carbon fiber supply chain. I’m working on a complete report of every presentation from the two-day conference, which will be available soon. In the meantime, some of the highlights:

Brett Schneider, president, global fibers, at carbon fiber manufacturer Hexcel (Stamford, CT, US) kicked off the conference and said that current global demand for carbon fiber is 60,000-65,000 MT per year, with a global nameplate capacity of 160,000 MT. Acknowledging that this appears to show a carbon fiber surplus, he cautioned that the variability of carbon fiber properties — tow count, mechanical properties, sizings, fiber forms, etc. — combined with production knockdown, may actually limit availability of some types of carbon fiber. Schneider also spent a fair amount of time addressing the commoditization question — the idea that the aforementioned variability creates too much complexity and makes carbon fiber adoption difficult. I can’t succinctly summarize all of Schneider’s commoditization comments here except to say that he thinks it’s not viable and to offer this quote from his presentation: “Which one or two fibers would you like us to commoditize?” Another of Schneider’s comments also got a few chuckles and was referenced, tongue in cheek, by other presenters throughout the conference: “If you hand someone a bobbin of carbon fiber, it is incredibly useless by itself.” Meaning, applying carbon fiber takes some know-how.

Contrasting Schneider somewhat was Dan Pichler, managing director of CarbConsult GmbH (Hofheim am Taunus, Germany), a composites industry consulting firm. He estimates that carbon fiber demand is in the 85,000-90,000-MT range, with 60-65% of that in the small-tow (1k-24k) segment and 35-40% in the large-tow segment. He said 65% of all carbon fiber goes to the industrial end market, 20% to the aerospace market and 15% to the sporting goods market. Year-over-year carbon fiber growth, he said, is 9-14%. On the capacity side, Pichler sees more tightness than Schneider does. Pichler estimates that global carbon fiber nameplate capacity is 140,000 MT, with actual capacity (after knockdown) of 90,000-95,000 MT. One-third of the world’s carbon fiber manufacturers are expanding right now, Pichler said. He addressed commoditization, which he referred to as standardization, via the sole-source challenge for many OEMs that use carbon fiber and noted that “purchasing guys want multiple suppliers. There is pull among our customers, in the real world, for standardization.” He noted, however, as Schneider did, that material stratification makes that difficult — but not impossible: “In some cases they will get that standardization. In some cases they won’t.”

Pierre Harter, director of R&D at Spirit AeroSystems (Wichita, KS, US), provided a look ahead at the materials and technologies the aerospace giant is evaluating for next-generation aircraft applications. Harter emphasized a need for “step-function change in cost and performance” to meet aerospace OEM expectations in terms of manufacturing efficiency and throughput, citing work he and his team are doing with multi-functional materials, advanced preforms, high-rate fiber/tape placement, structural bonding, additive manufacturing, fiber steering and inspection. In short, Harter said,“The next airplanes have to be made at a lower cost than what we have seen in the past.”

Among those addressing carbon fiber in automotive was Lars Herbeck, managing director of Voith Composites (Garching, Germany), which developed a highly automated tape placement/preforming/resin transfer molding (RTM) process for the manufacture of the carbon fiber/epoxy rear wall of the Audi A8. Herbeck also assessed the state of the art of resin cure in automotive and found much he likes, noting that since 1950 epoxy cure times have dropped precipitously, from 24 hours to 1.5 minutes today. “We are approaching 1,000 parts a day on one press,” he said. “Thermoset is as fast as thermoplastic.” Ultimately, however, he said the cost of composite parts for automotive must be driven down to less than €18/kg. To achieve this, he said, the cost of carbon fiber must be reduced to less than €10/kg, to be sustainable.

Keep your eyes peeled for a full report soon.

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