The Saga of Composites: Where is the composite industry heading?
31 October 2016
Every aspect of the development of composites o‑ers a fascinating story, whether it is the study of the materials themselves and their gradual and continual process of transformation, the work with engineers who are always developing new applications for composites, the manufacturers who set out to conquer new markets, or the world’s many di‑erent geographical regions that are adopting composites, often for very specific uses. Hindsight makes it relatively easy to retrace the sector’s history. It is much more di‑icult, however, to map out the future, since so many factors (e.g. the world economy, lobbies, protectionism, resources) are beyond our control. But what we can do is analyse what is happening now.
From the days of pioneering to the industrial era Composite materials as we know them first started to appear in the 1940s, and since then we have seen the sector develop into a veritable industry, particularly in recent years. It all started with carbon and glass fibre. Thanks to the creativity of early composite pioneers, the first composite products based on new materials emerged, bringing their share of advantages and positioning composites as serious rivals for existing materials. First there were the aerospace, building, boating, sports and leisure, and military equipment industries; composites then spread to new sectors, such as the medical, electronics, electricity, consumer goods, and automotive industries. As for the materials themselves, the glass, carbon and aramid fibres used to make the composites were joined by basalt, natural plant-based, and then graphene fibres. From the very beginning, material production was mainly an activity for large companies. For parts and product manufacturing, expertise was often located in small or medium-sized companies. In terms of the production of parts, there were at least a dozen di‑erent processes involved, depending on the item being manufactured and the sector for which that item was intended. For this reason, for a long time the processing operation was a complex and heterogeneous one. Overall, the industry has progressed, in particular due to regulatory pressure. Europe has been a pioneer in that area, and is also well positioned in the formulation of raw materials and parts production. The need for large volumes and the production of large series has done the rest. This is particularly the case in the aerospace and automotive industries, which are being transformed by automation and robotization.
As it has developed over the decades, the composite industry has been able to address the many challenges it faced in the past century:
- Excessive raw material prices,
- Low level of standardization in general, particularly design standards, and of technical support from suppliers,
- Failure to take recycling into consideration,
- A persistently small market,
- A tendency to consider composites as a mere substitute for other materials rather than creating new applications,
- Insu‑icient communication on the part of companies to spread the word to user industries about the benefits of composites.
The future of composites The global market for composites is estimated at around US$73.9 billion (2015 figures). In terms of distribution, the markets in the United States/Canada and European regions are mature, accounting for 32% and 20% of global value respectively. The India/Asia/Pacific region accounts for the lion’s share of the market at about 43%, while Latin America and Africa account for only 5%. The current relocation of production to certain geographical areas, such as the U.S., where energy has become less expensive, is worthy of note. Overall, the industry continues to develop in structure. During these past years, we have seen a large number of mergers and acquisitions throughout the value chain and between players in di‑erent regions of the world. At the same time, newcomers have arrived, either from the ancillary material sector or from downstream industries, and they know their markets very well. Some of these are aiming at vertical integration in order to give the end customers maximum benefit. In a world where energy conservation and product recyclability are sought, composites seem well placed to be one of the best solutions, and not only for extreme applications, but also in consumer markets. This should have an impact on the size of the composites market in the very near future, and a large number of jobs should be created in this innovative industry. As Jules Verne said, “all that is impossible remains to be accomplished”.
Mrs Frédérique Mutel Frédérique Mutel, is the President & CEO of JEC Group, an industry organization dedicated to Composites. Frédérique Mutel joined JEC at the creation of the company (December 1996). She conducted a business model based on knowledge and networking. She opened o‑ices in Asia and America. Within 15 years, she multiplied by 6 the services o‑ered to the industry, the JEC revenues and the number of employees. Before JEC, she acquired experience in international development, aerospace industry and Information Technologies: She was envolved in the United Nations Development Program in Niger and the Agency for International Development in the US Department of State. Then she entered the industry and had development responsibilities in the field of aircraft simulation, electronic publishing and 3D imagery at Sogitec (Dassault Aviation). Completed with senior positions in information technology companies (Accenture and Thales) and in the publishing sector (Blenheim).