Juggling carbon fiber supply and demand?


Two recent and apparently unrelated news events in the composites industry may have long-term implications for the supply and demand of aerospace-grade carbon fiber and carbon fiber prepreg.

First, Boeing announced that it will build the carbon fiber composite wings for the 777X at it's massive assembly facility in Everett, Wash., USA. This was not too surprising as Boeing and the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 751 had just signed an eight-year contract extension that promised, in effect, to place 777X assembly work in the Seattle area. The only real question was where.

Second, the world's largest carbon fiber manufacturer, Toray (Tokyo, Japan), announced last week that it has purchased 400 acres of land in Spartanburg County, S.C., USA. The press release Toray issued regarding the acquisition was worded carefully to avoid stating outright that the property would be the home of a new carbon fiber manufacturing facility, but much of the text referenced carbon fiber and carbon fiber prepreg and the importance of those materials to Toray and the aerospace industry. Given that the 400 acres bought are just a few hours away from Boeing's Charleston, S.C., 787 final assembly line (FAL), it is probably not unfair to suppose that Toray will soon be expanding carbon fiber capacity there.

The question of the day is this: Whose carbon fiber will Boeing use to fabricate the 777X wings? Toray is the material of choice on the 787 Dreamliner. If one assumes that this connection will carry over to the 777X, then the next question is this: How will Toray supply all of the carbon fiber prepreg needed for the 787 and the 777X wings? Toray already announced in early February 2014 the expansion of its prepreg capacity in Tacoma, Wash., but this was for 787 demand only.

The 777X wings will demand either another expansion in Tacoma, or a shuffling of carbon fiber prepreg capacity between Tacoma and the anticipated new facility in South Carolina to make sure each Boeing facility is getting the material it needs.

On the other hand, companies like Toho Tenax (Rockwood, Tenn., USA) or Hexcel (Stamford, Conn., USA), which supplies much of the carbon fiber used on the Airbus A350 XWB, might win the 777X wing contract, which would introduce a host of new carbon fiber supply and demand questions and variables. 

In any case, these are exciting times in aerospace composites, and it will be interesting to watch events unfold.