The markets: Sports and recreation (2017)

Big for composites in the 1990s, the sporting goods/recreation market is, today, generally characterized by incremental development. Exceptions to that rule are bicycle frames and protective headgear, for two, which have provided stimulus for new development.

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The sporting goods market was a boon to the advanced composites market in the final decade of the 20th Century. Carbon fiber fishing rods were introduced to great fanfare — and sales. Golf shafts and tennis racquets weren’t to be left out and Driven by the growing popularity of cycling races like the Tour de France, carbon fiber bicycles went from pro racing to street and saw numerous innovations in the 1990s and 2000s, in materials and fabrication methods.

Today, composites are found in products used in 7 of the 10 most popular outdoor sports and recreational activities. Glass- and carbon-reinforced composites (alone or in hybrids with other fibers) continue to replace wood and metal in skis, fishing rods, bowling balls, tennis racquets, spars/shafts for kayak paddles, windsurfing masts and boards, hockey sticks, kites and bicycle handlebars, as well as in niche applications, such as fairings for recumbent bikes. Market research firm Lucintel (Irving, TX, US) estimates that the global sporting goods industry, at retail, is worth US$5 trillion and brings in US$110 billion/yr in the US alone.

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Although carbon fiber has a strong position in this segment, Lucintel maintains that use of carbon fiber in the worldwide sporting goods market could see its lowest growth rate in the near term but is still expected to reach US$3 billion in 2018, up from US$1.8 billion in 2013. Notably, the sporting goods segment in China, which is projected by Lucintel in Growth Opportunities in China Carbon Fiber Market 2013-2018 to reach US$408 million by 2018, will consume more carbon fiber (51% of the total) than China’s aerospace and industrial segments combined.

In late 2015, the big news was the potential use of carbon fiber reinforcement in American football helmets. SG Helmets (Brownsburg, IN, US) introduced the first commercial composite football helmet, the SG Simpson, made of Kevlar aramid and carbon fibers and epoxy. Company co-founder Bill Simpson (pictured) says the SG is at least 50% better at dissipating forces to the head than the conventional unreinforced polycarbonate helmet at half the weight. Targeted to youth leagues, the helmet has sparked interest and research in several quarters, and joins fiber-reinforced helmet products in a number of other sports, from skateboarding to whitewater rafting that already have incorporated fiber in headgear designs (see "Composites tackle concussions" under Related Content").

Although high stiffness and strength at very low weight have made carbon fiber (CF) a mainstay in high-performance sporting goods, athletes now also desire vibration damping, which improves athlete control and reduces fatigue. This trend toward a better “feel” — a quality CF cannot provide on its own — created a niche for Innegra, the tradename for high-modulus polypropylene (HMPP) fiber produced by Innegra Technologies (Greenville, SC, US).

An early adopter was HEAD Sport (Kennelbach, Austria). Tennis players valued the energy absorption HMPP added to HEAD’s carbon fiber racquets: HEAD has measured a 17% reduction in vibration in its hybrid HMPP/CF racquets, which are now a standard product line, reports Innegra Technologies’ business development director Jen Hanna.      

Surfers appreciated HMPP’s ability to keep their fiberglass boards from breaking. Similarly, HMPP in Adventure Technology’s (Greenville, SC, US) whitewater kayak paddle shafts significantly reduced catastrophic failure and increased abrasion resistance by 200% in the paddle’s glass fiber blade.

 “What we’re seeing,” Hanna emphasizes, “is a real push for increased toughness, durability and vibration damping, but without sacrificing lightweight.”

Innegra also iced a spot in the National Hockey League (NHL). Used in Bauer (Exeter, NH, US and Mississauga, ON, Canada) goalie sticks for years (a hybrid HMPP/CF fabric using a special resin developed for Bauer), NHL players suggested applying the hybrid fabric in goalie masks, which must withstand multiple hits per game from 100-mph pucks. HMPP reportedly dissipates energy very quickly, with a sonic velocity — the rate (m/sec) at which energy is dispersed in ballistics testing — near that of more expensive aramid fiber. “The players say they don’t get the ringing in their ears that they do with the normal masks,” says Hanna. “You could build up more toughness and durability with more CF layers,” concedes Hanna, “or with plastics like nylon, but this also means adding weight.” She says HMPP offers a higher elongation-to-break than CF while offering a higher modulus than either standard PP, polyethylene (PE), or polyamide (nylon). And although HMPP is hydrophobic, like ultrahigh-molecular-weight PE (UHMWPE) fiber, it has enough surface roughness to enable good bonding, which the UHMWPE’s slick surface makes difficult. 

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