Volume 13 | Issue 4 | Year 2010

When the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fired its twin engines and sped down a runway in Seattle in December 2009 for its maiden flight, the new ultra-efficient aircraft wasn’t the only thing taking off – the composites industry was ascending as well.
The Dreamliner is the world’s first large commercial jetliner with a fuselage made primarily of carbon fiber composite rather than aluminum, making the plane significantly lighter and more durable. Boeing and its partners created an automated way to wrap carbon fiber tape that is pre-impregnated with epoxy resin around a mold to create the plane’s fuselage. The mold is then placed in a pressurized autoclave, where heat triggers a chemical reaction that cures the composite material, giving it both strength and stiffness.

The result was Boeing’s most fuel-efficient aircraft – 20 percent better than the company’s comparable midsize 767 and Airbus A330 models. The aerospace giant also predicts it will save millions of dollars in maintenance costs because composites don’t corrode.

Passengers notice a difference, too. The stronger composite body of the Dreamliner lowers cabin pressure (roughly the equivalent of a 6,000-foot elevation) which introduces more humidity in the cabin, leaving passengers feeling less tired after a flight.

The Dreamliner is a wake-up-and-take-notice application for a composites industry that has been feeling jetlagged from the recent economy. The plane show-cases the many benefits of composite materials (see sidebar “Advantages of Using Composites”) and exemplifies the ingenuity of manufacturers in the field.

“Since the beginning of the industry, composites firms have touted the advantages of the material – stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum, more corrosion-resistant than both, and so on,” says John Busel, director of the Composites Growth Initiative of the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA). “Because of those benefits, composites are found everywhere. They protect troops, make bridges more corrosion resistant and durable for long service life, reduce pollution from coal-burning plants, make homes beautiful and help convert wind into electricity.”

But because the industry is still comparatively young – it has been in existence for about 65 years while wood and steel have been around for thousands of years – its professionals often find it challenging to communicate the value of composites to engineers and designers who understand the properties of longer-established materials. Another challenge, Busel says, has been the industry’s ability to automate more of their processes. “That’s why seeing the Dreamliner is like peering into a crystal ball,” he comments. “It’s the level of success that will occur as more companies realize the power of composites, and when those composites are used in a highly efficient, repeatable process.”

Composites (sometimes called “fiber-reinforced polymers”) combine a resin and a fiber reinforcement like glass or carbon. The resin acts to bond and protect the fibers from chemicals and the environment, and the fibers provide strength and stiffness to the composite product.

Unlike metals, which have equal strength in all directions, composites can be custom-tailored to have strength in a specific direction. If a composite has to resist bending in one direction, most of the fiber can be oriented to the bending force. This creates a stiff structure in one direction, enabling more of the material to be used where it counts.

Composites also differ from metals due to the wide range of material combinations that can be used. Because of this, it is difficult to use a “handbook” approach to composites design. For example, if someone needed a steel I-beam to span 20 feet and carry a 2,000-pound load, he or she could simply open a structural steel handbook and choose the proper beam thickness and flange width from a chart. Composites are more complicated. Many combinations of resins and reinforcements can be used, and each material contributes to unique properties in the finished product. There is no such thing as a “generic” or “typical” composite.

For that reason, the ability to adapt composites over a wide range of requirements has been a mainstay of the industry since its beginning. The first known composite product was a boat hull manufactured in the mid-1930s as part of a manufacturing experiment using a fiberglass fabric and polyester resin laid in a foam mold. In the 1940s, the U.S. Air Force and Navy capitalized on composites’ high strength-to-weight ratio and inherent resistance to weather and the corrosive effects of salt air and sea. By 1945, more than seven million pounds of fiberglass was being shipped, primarily for military applications. Soon, the benefits of composites were communicated to the public sector, which began to use them for equipment in industries such as chemical processing, pulp and paper, power, waste treatment and metals refining.

U.S. composites manufacturing is now a $53 billion-a-year industry and one of the few in which the United States is more advanced than most competitors abroad. About 6,000 composites-related manufacturing plants and materials distributors operate nationwide, employing more than 125,000 people. An additional 230,000 workers are employed in businesses that support the composites industry, including materials suppliers, equipment vendors and other support personnel.

Today, composite materials are found in many products used daily and on weekends (e.g., cars, boats, RVs, skis and golf clubs). Composites are integral to a wide range of industries including industrial, aerospace, military, transportation, construction, corrosion-resistant equipment, marine, infrastructure, consumer products, electrical, aircraft/aerospace, appliances, business equipment and energy, among many more. In a marketplace in which demands for product performance are ever increasing, the materials have proven effective in reducing cost and improving performance.

“As an industry, our biggest advantage can also be our biggest Achilles’ heel,” says Busel. “We can come up with an answer for practically any problem, but our materials and processes are so wideranging that our companies have many different options, outlooks and focuses. We need a force to bring us together.”

That force is the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA), the world’s largest trade association serving the composites industry. It includes more than 850 companies, ranging from small fabricators to multibillion-dollar chemical firms to academics, representing the entire supply chain in the industry. ACMA’s services are instrumental in education and training, regulatory compliance and formulation, and market growth and development.

To support market growth and development, ACMA launched the Composites Growth Initiative (CGI), which promotes increased use and better understanding of composite materials. The initiative includes a public relations effort to enhance the presence of composites to potential end users, stronger interaction between the academic community and the composites industry, and coordinated efforts of ACMA’s divisions, alliances and councils to identify growth opportunities. For example, ACMA’s Transportation Structures Council is working on Capitol Hill to educate Congress about the value of using composites in bridges and other infrastructure. Also, ACMA members working together in the CGI recently helped building officials recognize composites by establishing requirements for safe design and application that is mandated in the International Building Code.

“The CGI initiative works best in areas where no single company can make the same kind of difference as the combined efforts of many companies,” Busel says. “The CGI tagline says it all: ‘Multiple strengths, infinite possibilities.’”

The ability of ACMA members to share best practices and develop new technologies is critical as they seek to grow their businesses, especially because the largest markets in the composites industry – transportation, marine and construction – have been in decline for the past several years.

“The lead dog for the composites industry in the near future will be wind energy,” Busel predicts, adding that this includes the production of lightweight, durable blades, nacelles, and hubs. Further, new opportunities are developing for offshore wind installations where composites corrosion resistance is a perfect match in an ocean environment. According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind energy provided just 1.8 percent of U.S. power in 2009, but it accounted for 39 percent of all new generating capacity, and 36 states now have utility-scale wind projects. “Meeting the growing demand for renewable energy will require increasing the amount of composite materials and products used to make wind turbines,” Busel observes.

He also predicts that composites will become a more cost-effective, long-term technology for the repairing and retrofitting bridges and highways. Also, in the construction sector, recycled materials like glass will help to spark the use of composites in the kitchen and bath market.

“As the industry continues to mature, we’ll find new approaches and capabilities to expand our reach,” Busel says. “Wood is wood, and you can make only minor adjustments to concrete and steel. By comparison, composites are versatile and customizable, without sacrificing strength or safety. Our power is our ability to listen, create and evolve.”

Tom Dobbins, CAE, is the executive director of the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA), based in Arlington, Va. Details about the association and the composites industry are located at www.acmanet.org. He can be reached at tdobbins@acmanet.org.

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