CompositesWorld's annual Carbon Fiber conference was held Dec. 9-12, 2013, in Knoxville, Tenn., USA, and featured the usual array of quality speakers and presentations. More than 250 attendees absorbed information from more than 25 speakers. Carbon fiber consumers and suppliers alike rely on this event to provide a bell-weather of the general state of health of markets served by this important material. The CW Blog will offer, over the next few days, several reports on a few of the highlights from the conference.
It was clear, listening to presentations and talking to attendees, that the composites industry is avidly looking for signals from a variety of end markets about and where growth will occur. Aerospace, as usual, remains the one fixed value in this equation that provides the anchor and stability, but it's surrounded by several variables whose value is still unknown. Is automotive about to take off? What will happen to wind? Is oil and gas on the cusp of expansion? Is there a low-cost, non-PAN precursor on the horizon?
CW Blog will attempt to answer these questions. In the meantime, one thing is clear: There remains in the composites industry a certain tension between carbon fiber suppliers and consumers. Consumers — and potential consumers — want a steady, reliable supply of fiber that will allow them to develop products that make significant use of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber suppliers, facing significant capital and time investment to expand manufacturing capacity, are loathe to commit to production increases without some guarantee of purchase from customers.
In aerospace, customers like Boeing and Airbus have multi-year contractual commitments to companies like Toray and Hexcel to purchase fixed amounts of carbon fiber for use in their commercial aircraft. When it decided to manufacture the carbon fiber-intensive i3 all-electric passenger car, automaker BMW opted to work with carbon fiber manufacturer SGL Group to build its own carbon fiber supply chain and has avoided completely the prospect of carbon fiber supply interruptions.
It's very possible that we will see more such "captive" relationships over the next decade, particularly as fabricators become more serious about carbon fiber use. Indeed, it can be argued that if manufacturers really do believe that carbon fiber has the potential to be a game-changer (whatever the end market), nothing speaks to that belief more than a serious financial commitment.