Is carbon fibre unravelling?

The use of carbon fibre is proliferating throughout industry. But is the supply chain ready to respond to the expected increase in demand? Or is the wonder material about to unravel?

As carbon fibre continues to proliferate through industry, there is an underlying worry on the minds of many, both those using the material and those considering it for future applications. It's the security of supply and the ability for global production to ramp up to meet the expected seven fold increase in demand.

It is an energy intensive process to produce the carbon fibres themselves, with only a few regions producing in bulk, notably Japan and the United States. While some production exists in Europe, the region as a whole is reliant on imports, using 35% of global supply while only producing 12%.

For some time carbon fibre was restricted to low volume industries with big budgets such as Formula One cars and military fighter jets. However, mainstream aircraft manufactures have invested in carbon fibre in a major way and this medium volume venture has been met with such success it is now difficult to envisage a major aircraft manufacturer using anything else in the primary structure.

Converting to carbon
And it is now the turn of the high volume automotive industry to convert to carbon fibre. But will the supply chain be able to keep up? And will it force out smaller players if the OEMs start to order in quantity?

"The supply chain is being hit by this tsunami of demand," said Dr Andrew Walker, chief executive of the National Composites Certification and Evaluation Facility, established by University of Manchester. The facility aims to provide a National focus for the UK Composites Industry.

"So you have demand for aeroplanes which are tripling, the car industry, wind turbine manufacturers, civil engineering is using it on buildings, the rail industry wants to incorporate more of it; it can't cope with all this demand," he added.

Current market estimates place the global increase in demand at around 20% year on year. Indeed in the last 10 years production has doubled to 70,000 tonnes due to demand from Airbus and Boeing for their new generations of lightweight aircraft. However, in reality, it's a moderate amount for a raw material, even a lightweight one. For comparison, global production of aluminium is around 20 million tonnes. However, while it will still be dwafted by the metals markets, production of carbon fibre in the next eight years is expected to rise to at least 350,000 to 400,000 tonnes, and to as much as 1.8 million tonnes by 2025.

"It has taken 100 years to develop the aluminium industry, but we need to deliver the carbon fibre industry in a decade," Dr Walker said. "We are seeing a shift in carbon fibre manufacture with about eight to 10 players out there, but there needs to be some consolidation and it needs huge investment."

While the UK has a healthy prepreg industry, we do not produce fibres, so are entirely reliant on imports. Government is keen to continue the push toward advanced manufacturing in many world class areas from motorsport to aerospace and the rejuvenated car industry. All are increasingly looking to carbon fibre and as a nation our appetite for it will only increase.

"Each generation is challenged to do something," said Dr Walker. "We are challenged to save the world and reduce pollution, and we are going to do that through low mass materials that are very strong. Carbon fibre is fundamental to the future.

"It is like building a new shopping complex, 'it ain't no good unless you've got John Lewis'. And without carbon fibre we are in trouble!"
Made in Great Britain

Many, including Dr Walker, see the UK in a prime position to exploit future demand for fibres by building and commissioning a carbon fibre production facility. This would both secure and enhance the current advanced engineering and manufacturing capability of the UK, which could be threatened by any shortfall, as well as offering tremendous export potential to the larger automotive OEMs of Europe.

"If you were going to define an advanced technology nation, you would pick carbon fibre as a key technology," said Dr Walker. "It's like Silicon Valley all over again. If you're going to invest your pension fund in something, you'd say carbon fibre was a good and safe bet. It is something we can actively do to secure manufacturing in this country.

"If we were to manufacture 20,000 tonnes of carbon fibre, instead of importing it at a cost of £1 billion in raw material, you can export it. And not only export it, but you protect the UK supply chain which has a fundamental need for it."

There is a global race at the moment with many countries rapidly seeking to develop their own advanced engineering and manufacturing base. The UK is competing, not just with Europe, but the rest of world, especially emerging economies.

China, India, and Russia are all keen to snap up market share that is becoming available with growing demand and dwindling supply. And they are able to make quick and decisive moves, given many of their industries are headed by oligarchs as opposed to the more bureaucratic boardroom approach of the West.

"When you have an economy that is stagnating, or growing at 1%, then you should be looking at key and specific investments," added Dr Walker. "Carbon fibre is about high end technology and building a factory would require all the engineering support that Great Britain has to offer.

"There are two major costs associated with carbon fibre production; Acrylonitrile and electricity. The lowest cost Acrylonitrile in the world is in the lower North Sea basin.

Then the next cost is electricity. And electricity prices in Britain are not bad, though they are certainly not the cheapest. However, Grimsby is not a bad area for such a development as it has a gas fired power station."

Flash point
Perhaps one of the most significant moves in recent months has come from BMW with the launch of its i3 and i8 models, both using significant proportions of carbon fibre.

Though volumes of both are initially small, the cars have been well received and are likely to quickly grow in numbers and become part of its more mainstream offerings.

BMW clearly has its eyes on developing high volume, carbon fibre cars for the mass market. Many, not least BMW, hope this marks the same flashpoint as the Boeing Dreamliner did for the civil aircraft industry, where there is now no going back to metal.

However, the high volume and relatively fast production need for the automotive industry differs greatly from aerospace. BMW and VW, obviously concerned about the security of the supply chain, have brought, and recently increased, significant share holdings in one of the world's largest carbon fibre producers, SGL fibres.

"The investment is now entering the billions," said Dr Walker. "VW manufacture 300 models of cars across 80 different factories and they're all made of steel. Yet, they don't own any steel factories. But here they are, buying in to a supply chain for a car they don't yet make. It puts it in perspective."

Though some advocate that there will be organic and gradual growth between supply and demand, the 2020 emission targets for automotive is putting the sector under pressure and forcing demand up quickly.

Formax, a UK based weaving manufacturer has recently expanded its manufacturing facilities, specifically to keep up with the expected increase in demand from the automotive industry. While it does not have ties to any one fibre manufacturer, it seems less concerned about the long term security of UK supply, perhaps as it leaves it to customers to specify the fibres.

Managing director of Formax, Oliver Wessely said: "Everyone is looking at the i3 program, and I'm thinking these guys have done it. They are building a car and delivering it. The product looks great, it is getting a good reception and it is much lighter than the equivalent. So, maybe, everyone else is now going to have to do the same. But, I don't think they will power ahead and go straight into making a Volkswagen Golf just yet."

Justin Cunningham

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Dear Sir/Madam, This is a very interesting article. I am completely new to Carbon Fibre and I have some product projects that will be 100% CF! thought I would ask basic questions like to I purchase direct from (China) or buy from the local shop (UK) for the material of indeed have the product made in China and imported in batches of say 100 ! I do realise the are trying to build bridges with China Industry, but does this extend to CF ? As you have gathered I am all questions trying to find the best solution, any advice / links etc REALLY appreciated. Ian

Comment Ian Phythian, 20/03/2015

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