A look back at the forecasts made by composite industry analysts for carbon fiber demand show that the current take up has fallen far short of expectations. In defending their forecasts the analysts will point to unforeseen macroeconomic factors but the question needs to be asked: “is one of the biggest restraints caused by the composite industry itself?”

The high cost of carbon fiber relative to alternative materials is often given as a reason not to adopt composite structures in industrial markets, but the biggest barrier to expanding the market adoption of carbon fiber composites is not the price of the materials but the cost of the manufacturing processes themselves. After years of little progress, this barrier is about to be broken.

Whereas the aerospace industry can accommodate large expense to minimize weight, the dynamics are different in the high volume lower cost industrial sectors especially the automotive industry. At present, available technologies are 4–5 times the acceptable cost hurdle faced in automotive, compared to conventional materials. These processes involve numerous stages that are both time consuming and produce high levels of scrap waste with the result that they are totally uneconomic for the volume automotive market as well as many other industrial markets.

Whilst some of the exotic automotive marques have used carbon fiber composites in their supercars for many years, BMW was the first mainstream marque to pioneer the use of carbon fiber composites in its’ i series range, the i8 sports car and i3. However other than BMW there has been no widespread adoption of composites in the marques that focus on mass production markets. This is a matter for concern as the automotive market is facing regulatory pressures in the US and the EU to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve fuel economy targets. This regulatory pressure is not going to subside, if anything, the regulatory pressures will only increase together with the threat of punitive fines being imposed.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Reinforced Plastics.

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