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30th September 2019, Cambridge

Avenues of opportunity for textiles manufacturers

Peter George.  © FMG

Peter George.  © FMG

Inside Composites talks to Peter George, senior consultant for the Future Materials Group (FMG).

What are the key attractions of the composites industry for manufacturers of technical textiles?

Peter George: The global composites market is a relatively young and dynamic industry with strong growth rates and attractive margins and offers a range of opportunities and benefits for companies in adjacent markets looking to diversify. The overall market is divided into an estimated US$ 30 billion industry for raw materials (fibres and resin) which is converted into composite parts worth about three times as much, creating a market estimated at US$ 95 billion with a growth rate of approximately 8% per annum.

With good value propositions and sustainable margins, it is clear to see why diversification into composites, especially by those skilled in the processing of fibres, can be seen as such an attractive strategic option.

Several combining factors make this new market appealing:

  • The balanced international spread of the composites industry (32% North America, 20% Europe and 43% Asia) offers new regional entrants a pathway to further worldwide expansion in composites or their existing industries.
  • The range of applications is vast, including aerospace, automotive, defence, oil and gas, sports and leisure, civil engineering, plus many others. However, it is not just these existing opportunities that present an argument for entry. The composites world is also in the middle of a very dynamic period with significant new trends coming into play, including new processes and properties, that each offer significant growth potential.
  • In addition, there is an opportunity to also add value to products by transitioning a material from low-cost industrial fibre, used for example for insulation, to a higher margin composites solution.
  • Increased understanding of the design properties and characteristics of composites using short fibres can also help adoption of more rapid moulding processes by manufacturers moving towards short fibre composites to increase efficiency.  
  • New avenues in fibre and matrix development are now demanding experience of process ‘outsiders’, such as specialists in nonwoven thermoplastic fibres.

Ultimately, the composites industry is happy to encourage such diversification as long as the cost-saving and efficiency gains allow it to expand from the original pioneering markets such as Aerospace and Sport into new markets where existing processes are currently out of the required price range.

What are the barriers to entry?

PG: Understanding the differences between the composites and technical textiles markets represents the biggest challenge for those looking to enter.

Wind turbine size and efficiency grows with increased blade length. © LM Windpower

Wind turbine size and efficiency grows with increased blade length. © LM Windpower

For instance, manufacturing processes can vary immensely with fabric performance differing by process needs for, say, drape, resin flow or fibre wear and damage during handling.  

Structural design is also more challenging with design techniques like sandwich structures preferred over simpler monolithic parts. End products might need to be consistently lighter or stronger than current processes can deliver, forcing additional process developments to meet the new precise requirements. Additional reinforcement fabric properties such as surface adhesion, fibre tensile and compressive strengths etc. become critical once the fabric is cured in the solid matrix resin.

It is also not sufficient to just have a good value proposition to enter the market. The change the new entrant brings has to benefit all other players affected up and down the value chain or they will block the move, especially if they have investment in the existing process route that is to be replaced.

Entry into a value chain may then involve finding alternative routes and working with new players to reach the end user. These players might see the new offering as risky and demand higher margins to compensate for the higher risk of failure, which then leads to this ‘risk premium’ overshadowing the original benefit of the new fibre, composite or process.

As challenging as they are, none of these barriers are insurmountable, they just require consideration, expertise and advanced thought.

Let’s consider opportunities for textiles in the composite industry by the major end-use sectors, starting with wind energy. This I understand involves mainly glass fibre-based materials – what are the requirements for fabric reinforcements?

PG: Glass fibre is the most common reinforcement in wind energy applications and is used in various textile formats in blade roots, spars, shear webs and shells, as well as in additional components like nacelles.

Glass fibre weighs more than the second most common reinforcement, carbon fibre, and is not as stiff, but it is more impact-resistant and has a greater elongation-to-break. Depending upon the glass type, filament diameter, coating chemistry and fibre form, a wide range of properties and performance levels can be achieved.

Wind turbine size and efficiency grows with increased blade length. Blades must at all times remain stiff enough not to hit their own support tower and this is achieved by design (e.g. thicker blades) and materials such as carbon rather than glass and material morphologies such as multi-axial rather than woven fabrics. Each development, particularly the use of expensive carbon, has to be cost effective since, unlike sports equipment the ultimate aim is lower cost performance.

A financially significant benefit of composites in aerospace beyond strength to weight is the reduced need for expensive maintenance. © Boeing

A financially significant benefit of composites in aerospace beyond strength to weight is the reduced need for expensive maintenance. © Boeing

As blades grow longer within the wind energy sector, the idea of converting structural areas of the blade from E-glass to significantly stiffer and lighter carbon fibre begins to make sense. Lighter blades require less robust turbine and tower components, so the cascading cost savings can partly offset the additional cost of carbon.

Much more carbon fibre is employed in aerospace so which fabrics are generally employed here?

PG: The stringent requirements of the aerospace industry demand high strength-to-weight ratios for all materials used. Depending on the anisotropic (directional) strength needs, unidirectional or multiaxial fabrics with straight uncrimped fibres are used to maximise effectiveness of expensive fibres such as carbon and aramid. Fabrics are engineered to meet and exceed the crucial requirements for core strength, durability, fire and fatigue resistance.

A financially significant benefit of composites in aerospace beyond strength to weight is the reduced need for expensive maintenance versus traditional materials due to higher overall durability.

How much of an opportunity do you believe there is for carbon composites in the automotive sector? What’s the growth potential?

PG: There is potential as the industry continues to adopt composites for light weighting vehicles, driven by fuel economy and emissions regulations.

The market for carbon fibre in automotive applications in 2019 was estimated at more than 19kt. This encompasses a wide range of products from the highly aesthetic carbon fibre fabric-based components used in luxury automotive to the more cost-efficient carbon fibre sheet moulding compound as adopted by Toyota for its Toyota Prius PHV.

Traditionally, carbon fibre was initially used for top performance sports cars where cost was less of an issue. However, introduction to volume automotive markets places a great burden on process cost reduction and also opens the door to non-carbon fibres where cost effective.

A further challenge beyond fuel consumption and weight reduction i.e. the need to accommodate heavy batteries in electric vehicles, is recyclability. This is now a major driver in many countries. For instance, in the EU, the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV) Directive now requires 95% of the vehicle weight to be reused or recovered at the end of life. This is providing challenges when substituting recyclable ferrous components with composites, to use thermoplastic matrices that can be re-melted, and to use recyclable synthetics or sustainably sourced natural fibres in components. All of these dynamics open up opportunities for new approaches.

With observers conflicted by the large opportunity and challenges encountered, predicted growth rates for the wider adoption of composites in automotive vary widely from 5% p.a. for the most conservative to 25% p.a. for those who expect a quick adoption of composites in the mid and mass automotive markets.

At FMG, we think that the prospects for the luxury car sector are still good and expect the top tier of the market to continue growing regularly at an estimated 10% p.a. The mid and mass market will grow stepwise as even the adoption of a single carbon fibre part in a mid-market model of 400,000 vehicles pa. represents a potential carbon fibre demand of 100-1000t, a significant increase in terms of global carbon fibre supply.

What other composite sectors are growing?

PG: As we briefly mentioned earlier, the global composites market growth is being pushed by a rising demand for lightweight materials from automotive and aerospace industries specifically in North America, Europe and Asia.

Cost-efficient carbon fibre sheet moulding compound has been adopted by Toyota for its Toyota Prius PHV. © Toyota

Cost-efficient carbon fibre sheet moulding compound has been adopted by Toyota for its Toyota Prius PHV. © Toyota

In other sectors, the beneficial properties of composites are replacing many existing materials, leading to a growth in composites markets such as civil engineering (4% CAGR), oil and gas (10% CAGR) and industrial (8% CAGR).

Some of these areas can be fast growing but fragmented since many applications within these sectors have adopted direct manufacturing processes such as pultrusion and filament winding to keep prices down. On the other hand, niche applications such as machine parts or bridge structures require more complex fabrics or braids.

The more mature sport and leisure market is still growing (4%) but is not driven purely by cost and continuously requires the re-design and engineering of complex structures for its high performance, competitive products (racing boats and cars, bikes etc).

In addition to glass and carbon, what other fibres are employed in composites?

PG: The composite markets are still dominated by glass (E-glass, C-glass, S2-glass), carbon and aramid fibres. While more niche applications use other fibres such as quartz, basalt, boron, ceramic and PBO.

The growing range of natural fibres such as jute, flax, bamboo, coconut etc. are gaining popularity for bio-composites in sport, automotive, aerospace, construction and electrical sectors, and are expected to exceed US$ 5 billion by 2020.

The automotive biocomposites market alone has been growing at 20% pa to address legislation on end-of-life disposal in Europe.

How big an opportunity is there in the recycling of carbon composites?

PG: Carbon fibre composite recycling is a relatively undeveloped market with the majority of players still developing their technologies and working with customers to define applications for recycled carbon fibre products.

The opportunity is there due to strong drivers:

  • An increasing legislation across different industries regarding the disposal of composite manufacturing waste and end-of-life waste. This is particularly true for automotive: carbon fibre won’t be adopted in larger volumes until a recycling solution is found.
  • Recycled carbon fibre products are cheaper than virgin fibre products and can significantly reduce the cost of lightweight structures and components.

Many investors have seen the opportunity in composite recycling, but most remain prudent as commercially viable technology solutions are yet to emerge clearly.  The most prominent deals so far was the acquisition of 25% of ELG Carbon Fibre, a leading carbon fibre recycling company, by Mitsubishi Corporation at the end of 2018, and the 50% acquisition of Carbon Conversions by Hexcel in late 2016.

What assistance can FMG provide textiles manufacturers looking to enter the composites market?

PG: Looking back to the barriers to entry that companies face, whilst none of these challenges are insurmountable, they require consideration and expertise and some advance thought. Positioning in the appropriate place in the industry landscape requires extensive analysis of the competitive forces and indirect effects on a new arrival that may slow or prevent entry, and this is where we assist. 

Our job at FMG is to help these businesses understand the market, identify their target position and then, whether acting alone, or via merger or acquisition, develop their pathway into composites.

www.futurematerialsgroup.com

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