Prognosticating about the short-term future of any industry is tricky. It is certainly a challenge in the composites industry, according to Utah-based Rock West Composites. Rock West says the problem with industry prognostications is that you never know where prices are going or what demand might be.
The challenges of predicting the future hasn’t stopped Composites World columnist Dale Brosius from writing about three areas he thinks could be important to composites in the coming year. Brosius says 2019 will be more about market growth than composites technology. If he’s right, companies like Rock West Composites could have a very good year.
1. Infrastructure Projects
Brosius’ first growth market is infrastructure. We are talking about roads and bridges here. He contends that we finally may have the right mix in Washington to approve a massive infrastructure bill that would get road and bridge repair on track sooner rather than later. How do composites factor in?
Carbon fiber is increasingly popular as a structural material for bridge components. It’s stronger and more reliable than steel, it can handle as much stress as concrete, and doesn’t require nearly the same level of maintenance as either of the other two materials.
2. Wind Energy
Next on the list is wind energy. This particular field has been a big user of composites for quite some time now. Between carbon fiber and fiberglass, manufacturers rely on composite materials to build lightweight but strong wind turbines capable of generating quite a bit of power.
Brosius sees an opening here based on the projected growth of wind energy worldwide. He cites Global Wind Energy Council statistics that seem to imply record growth over the next two years. Should that growth actually come to fruition, there will be a much higher demand for turbines and replacement blades.
3. Personal Air Mobility
The third growth area cited by Brosius is one you might question: personal air mobility. In other words, flying cars. This is something mankind has been working on for decades with little success. But Brosius thinks 2019 could be the year that someone gets it right.
Note that he’s not predicting large-scale manufacturing of personal air vehicles in 2019 or shortly thereafter. He is only saying that some company will successfully demonstrate both the possibility and potential of personal air mobility. Doing so will require engineering and design unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Brosius believes that composites will be key to any such designs.
Is Brosius onto something or just imagining a fanciful future? He may be onto something. Uber, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, and others have already announced ambitious testing plans for the coming year. Uber has gone as far as to say they will be ready to test their Uber Air platform by sometime in 2020. Dallas and Los Angeles are reported sites for the test.
Technology Will Still Have to Be Addressed
It’s reasonable to believe that Brosius’ predictions will prove fairly accurate. But for market growth to have any lasting impact, technology will still have to be addressed to some degree. Why? Because the one thing no one can get around is the cost of producing composites. To be as clear as possible, composites are just plain expensive.
We need new technologies that can produce things like carbon fiber at a fraction of the current cost. We need new technologies that make recycling composites both financially viable and attractive. Finally, we need technologies that make it possible to retire the autoclave. If the industry can nail down those three things, the potential for composites will be nearly limitless.