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Adrian Wilson

Editor's Viewpoint

25th September 2019, UK

Clouds over Europe

Composites Europe 2019 in Stuttgart. © Composites Europe

Composites Europe 2019 in Stuttgart. © Composites Europe

After six consecutive years of growth, the European market for glass fibre composites is stagnating and construction and infrastructure will overtake transportation as its major market segment for the first time in 2019.

These were the key findings from a new report presented by the AVK (the Federation of Reinforced Plastics) at the Composites Europe 2019 exhibition and conference held in Stuttgart, Germany, from September 10-12, at which both exhibitors and visitors were both 7% down on 2018.

The AVK reports that the automotive industry in Europe is currently suffering significantly from declining sales, in part stoked by trade barrier fears, as is the plant and mechanical engineering sector.

The aerospace market, however, is holding up, while the construction sector is booming.

Seismographs

“Trade fairs like Composites Europe are seismographs of their industries,” says Michael Freter, managing director of the exhibition organiser Reed Exhibitions.

Long term trends for glass fibre composite segments as a percentage of the total. © Composites Europe

Long term trends for glass fibre composite segments as a percentage of the total. © Composites Europe

The total production volume for glass fibre composites is expected to be flat this year, at 1.141 million metric tons, according to the AVK report.

By process SMC/BMC (sheet and bulk moulding compound) continues to be the largest segment in terms of volume, with 297,000 tons expected to be produced in Europe this year.

SMC/BMC composites are primarily used in large scale series production applications and both are well-established in the electro/electronics and transport sectors. Typical applications include headlight systems, lamp housings, control cabinets, cases, and exterior components in the commercial vehicle and automotive sectors.

Open processes

With forecast total production of 237,000 tons in 2019, open processes – hand lay-up and spray-up – remain the second largest segment, although their share of the total market has fallen from over 37% to 20.7% in the past 20 years.

“Open processes often remain the method of choice – especially in the field of bespoke and custom-made products or small batch sizes, due to the low investment costs involved,” says Dr Elmar Witten, managing director of the AVK. “Spray-up and hand lay-up continue to be significant in the production of large, highly complex components or products. However, increasingly strict statutory processing regulations – especially for unsaturated polyesters/styrene – and changes to the limit values for other raw materials are making production in Europe ever more costly and difficult and further tightening cannot be ruled out in the next few years.”

RTM

The RTM (resin transfer moulding) segment comprises all processes in which resin is infused or injected into a closed cavity.

The production of glass fibre composites in Europe over the past 20 years. © Composites Europe

The production of glass fibre composites in Europe over the past 20 years. © Composites Europe

An enormous range of RTM processes have been developed over recent years, all of which use dry fibre/fibre semi-finished products. Once the mould has been lined with reinforcing materials it is closed or sealed and resin is introduced into the cavity of the closed form either under pressure and/or vacuum. The resin flows around or through the fibres.

After several years of continuous growth, production has stagnated in the RTM segment this year and remains steady at an expected 148,000 tons.

The production of glass fibre composites components using continuous processes such as pultrusion and flat panel production is also expected to be flat this year at150,000 tons.

Production in the larger of the two market segments, flat panels, has fallen to 94,000 tons. These products have been used in vehicles for many years, primarily in truck side panels, caravan superstructures or the conversion of commercial vehicles. They are supplemented by applications in the area of facades. Exports to the USA for recreational vehicles and commercial vehicles are the primary area where falls are expected. However, there are also initial indications of a decline in commercial vehicle production in other countries/regions.

Pultrusion

Production using pultrusion technology will grow to a total of 56,000 tons this year. This is the seventh consecutive year of production growth in the segment – albeit at a relatively low level. Pultrusion processes account for approximately 5% of total European production.

Within the pultrusion industry, the construction and infrastructure sectors are considered the key markets of the future. Products for these areas include, for example, reinforcement systems for bridges and buildings, window, stair and ladder profiles, as well as antenna systems for 5G networks where the composites must be transparent to radio waves, corrosion resistant, require little or no maintenance, permit load-specific designs and be electrical and thermal insulators.

Production in the market segment of pipes and tanks, manufactured using centrifugal casting or filament winding processes, is also slightly down in 2019.

Thermoplastics

Glass mat reinforced thermoplastics (GMT), long fibre reinforced thermoplastics (LFT) and continuous fibre reinforced thermoplastics are the only thermoplastic materials included in the AVK market report.

In 2019, the market for GMT and LFT will continue to grow at an above-average rate of 2.6% having already grown at 4.8% in 2018. From a long-term perspective, this market segment has almost quadrupled since 1999 – reaching a volume of 156,000 tons in 2019. During that period, its share of the total market has risen from 4.3% to over 13.7%.

LFTs are the largest category of thermoplastic materials. For some years, however, tapes and pre-consolidated, flat semi-finished products (‘organosheets’) have increasingly become the focus of attention – the latter particularly in relation to the hybridisation of manufacturing processes, e.g. their combination with injection moulding and forming.

“Projects in the automotive industry, and some in the electronics sector, are the primary growth drivers for thermoplastic materials,” says Witten. “Thermoplastic materials have many advantageous properties in terms of ease of processing, cycle times and recycling. They also combine well with other materials. The pressing and injection moulding techniques for manufacturing components are well-understood in the industry and also used for other materials. In principle, they can even be used for large series production of components in the range of 100,000 and above. Typical applications for these products include underbody protection bumpers, instrument panels or seat structures.”

The full AVK report can be read here.

www.composites-europe.com

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