A recently released report from a well-known market research firm has laid out a roadmap for the composites industry as it seeks to encourage automotive manufacturers to embrace more composite materials in their designs. The report acknowledges the biggest challenges faced by the composites industry and how these can be overcome.
Frost & Sullivan’s report suggests that demand for composites within the automotive manufacturing sector will increase by as much as 7.6% through 2025. Revenue is expected to increase up to 9% over the same period. To achieve such growth however, the composites sector will need to adopt a few strategies that effectively address auto industry concerns.
Cost is the Big Issue
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that specializes in composite products, echoes Frost & Sullivan’s contention that the biggest challenges they face in their quest to get more composites in the auto manufacturing is cost.
Carbon fiber is clearly the preferred composite for automotive needs. But it is quite expensive compared to aluminum, steel, and most other plastics. Bringing down the cost of both virgin carbon fiber and carbon fiber fabrication is the number one priority for the industry.
Until costs are reduced significantly, carmakers will not be able to justify replacing larger volumes of steel, aluminum, and plastic. Incorporating too much carbon fiber would make their cars unaffordable for the average consumer. And pricing out consumers is not going to happen.
Other Necessary Strategies
The Frost & Sullivan report suggests a number of other strategies the composites industry can embrace. For example, they suggest working with researchers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to identify both synthetic and natural fibers that can be combined with carbon fiber to create stronger materials at a lower cost.
They recommend that the industry:
- offer comprehensive literature and simulation tools to OEMs, allowing those OEMs to better assess materials and how they perform under various conditions
- concentrate on manufacturing different kinds of composite materials for different purposes, rather than presenting the auto industry with a single carbon fiber material
- establish partnerships with OEMs for the purposes of developing new products and materials jointly.
All of the report’s recommendations seem to focus around the same central topic: expanding beyond the current supply of carbon fiber materials to come up with new and better materials that will meet manufacturing needs at a lower price.
Meeting New Car Demands
Stepping back from the Frost & Sullivan report and looking at the ‘why’ of all this clearly points to the new demands of the automotive industry. The industry is now at a crossroads very similar in nature to what automakers were facing in the early 1980s.
Back then, it was all about producing fuel-efficient cars that were both safe and inexpensive. The thrust in 2019 is developing the next generation of electric vehicles (EVs) that will bring us ever closer to eliminating the internal combustion engine.
Lightweight building materials are key to designing a successful EV. Without them, it is difficult to see how an EV could be built light enough to compete in range without sacrificing safety. So while science is concentrating on building better batteries, automakers are looking to the composites industry for lightweight materials capable of replacing aluminum and steel at a comparable cost.
Frost & Sullivan laid out a roadmap to help the composites industry get where it needs to go. Whether their recommendations are enough remains to be seen. At any rate, the pace at which car manufacturers adopt carbon fiber will largely determine how quickly EVs replace gasoline-powered vehicles.