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28th September 2018, Cambridge

Interview with Adrian Williams, MD, Future Materials Group

Adrian Williams, Managing Director of the Future Materials Group. © Future Materials GroupInside Composites talks to Adrian Williams, Managing Director of the Future Materials Group, a strategic growth adviser to the advanced composite materials and high value manufacturing sectors.

How can the Future Materials Group help companies looking to expand within the composites industry?

Adrian Williams: We are an independent strategic advisory firm operating on a global basis, with specialised expertise in composites and advanced materials for the high value manufacturing sectors. We can help businesses at all stages of their development, from start-up to maturity, to create and increase value, through accelerating and managing growth. For companies already active in the composites field, for example, we help formulate strategies to build out a product portfolio and penetrate new market sectors. Such strategies can be implemented either organically, by for example accelerating R&D or establishing new sales channels, or via mergers and acquisitions, whether involving acquiring companies and technology or licensing.

We also work with companies not currently active in composites, but looking to move into the space because it’s an attractive market. We can help formulate market entry strategies, in terms of an examination of sector structures, the processes required and the competition likely to be faced. Again, this can either be built out organically or via mergers and acquisitions.

One company you’ve been working with recently is tyre cord producer Kordsa. What were the factors leading to this company’s decision to move into composites and what was your role in the decision to make acquisitions?

AW: Kordsa was looking for growth outside its core tyre cord business – an area in which it has a world-leading position. It had a lot of competencies that could translate, including fibre handling, weaving, and impregnating fabrics with phenolics, along with an understanding of fibre reinforced structures, so there were perceived synergies. And the biggest market for tyre cord is the automotive sector, which of course is a huge market for composites. You see a lot of the same names cropping up in both composites and tyre cord, such as Toray and other big Japanese players. Kordsa, however, is also a big player in aircraft tyres.

We worked with them from an early stage to formulate their entry strategy on a global stage with a lot of related activities leading up to the acquisitions of Fabric Development Inc. (FDI) and Textile Products Inc. (TPI).

The biggest market for tyre cord is the automotive sector. © Future Materials Group

There was the founding of Kordsa’s Composite Centre of Excellence in Turkey, for example, in parallel to establishing a technology base in weaving for composites and prepregs. So all in all, we’ve been involved in their development for around three years.

FDI and TPI are among the leading companies in their sectors, with both companies developing and supplying a range of speciality textile reinforcements for advanced composite applications in the aviation sector.

With these acquisitions, Kordsa has now significantly strengthened both its global manufacturing presence – operating on four continents with 10 plants – and also its position in the United States, in a bid to become a leading player in the commercial aviation composite materials supply chain, which is predicted to grow by at least 8% annually over the next five years. The investments now open up significant new opportunities for Kordsa in the advanced composites supply chain

So there’s still plenty of room for growth in aerospace?

AW: Certainly, given the market’s expected growth. The demand for air travel is very strong as a result of the growing global population and its increasing affluence, and Boeing and Airbus build rates are at an all-time high. The wide bodied planes like the 787 and 380 have been the poster boys for composites, of course, and I think ultimately, we’ll see them transfer into narrow bodied fleets, simply because the airlines are demanding it. Some believe that aluminium will remain the key material because the damage tolerance of composites is not high enough, but we don’t buy that. The majority of airlines want composites for the wings and fuselage, not just because of the light weighting opportunities they provide, but also the secondary operational benefits over the lifetime of an aircraft, in terms of maintenance, fatigue, corrosion resistance etc.

Those same benefits also apply to the automotive sector, yet would you agree that composites adoption is not moving as fast as was expected?

AW: The problem is it’s still at a very early stage of development in terms of the materials and process technologies, and a supply chain is as yet, non-existent. Such big changes inevitably begin with huge amounts of optimism and then the real work of addressing the many challenges begins. There are many variables and uncertainties involved and eventually this leads to despair that the change won’t happen at all, until a more rational position is established.

Very different supply chains are required for the automotive industry to those already established for aerospace or sporting goods, but they will gradually fall into place.

The demand for air travel is very strong as a result of the growing global population and its increasing affluence. © Future Materials Group

Two other key areas of growth for composites are in wind power and construction. How do you view these markets at present?

AW: Composites are the material solution of choice for wind blades, with no real competition. With longer blades being built, more carbon is being used, although not as rapidly as many expected. There has been much growth in glass and epoxy for wind power in a relatively short period, but the overall growth rates in terms of installed megawatts is actually slowing at present, as governments reduce subsidies. The industry is actually at a point of transition because wind turbines are now becoming very price competitive with other methods of power generation – to the extent that companies are now able to make bids for big projects without any subsidies. We could well be about to enter the era of Wind 2.0, but right now we’re at that transitional phase.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, this tends to be very project driven and each example is quite specific. As such, it’s difficult to generate a consistent and sustainable business around them. If you look at it in terms of market penetration, the amount of composites used is tiny – it doesn’t really even register – and we’ve yet to get to the stage where there’s a standard composite building material.

What about other niche materials and applications?

AW: One interesting new area with growth potential is discontinuous fibre products such as combinations of thermoplastics and LFT materials, such as PEEK with short carbon fibres that can be used as replacements for complex cast and machined metal parts. These can be over-moulded to create increasingly complex plastic components.

Thermoplastics, of course are gaining increasing market penetration because there are things they are better at, but they also have certain processing challenges, and at the higher end they are expensive, because it’s difficult to drive that cost out.

Toray, of course is making a big bet on thermoplastics with its acquisition of TenCate and other moves.

We predict, however, that they will co-exist with thermosets for a long time to come, because building up legacy knowledge takes a long time, as does replacing it, and there’s a whole supply chain that is based around thermosets already established. Thermoplastics will certainly open up new applications for which thermosets have been unsuitable.

Finally, how can Industry 4.0 techniques and further automation assist the composites industry?

AW: The industry generally has a long way to go in terms of automation and it’s one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest. While high end performance is proven, we’re still very manual in terms of certain manufacturing techniques employed.

On one level, automation can be used to lower costs and get the labour intensity out, but also to more consistently predict and control material behaviour. Sensors and big data can certainly allow such incremental improvements, but bigger step changes are more difficult.

Getting the fibres in the right places and at the right angles and the resin to flow around them exactly where its required is highly complicated and the control of even small variables can have a big impact.

Sensors and further automation will allow the processing window of a manufacturing method to be narrowed down, and enable bigger steps to be made in the overall processes in the longer term.

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