While carbon fiber struggles to get a foothold in some industries, it is certainly not struggling in aerospace. In fact, the aerospace industry continues to be the single largest consumer of carbon fiber and other composites. Their consumption in Europe looks to increase thanks to higher demand among companies like Airbus and Safran CFM International.
Both companies appear to have an insatiable appetite for carbon fiber fabrics, panels, and prepregs. Demand has increased to the point of convincing U.S.-based Hexcel to open a brand-new $230 million plant in France. The plant will manufacture carbon fiber and polyacrylonitrile (PAN) materials for the two companies in order to support the production of the Airbus A350 XWB jet.
Hexcel currently manufactures the majority of its PAN in a plant located in Decatur, Alabama. Finished materials are shipped to France for use by aerospace customers. By building the new French plant, the company will be able to combine PAN manufacturing with its existing carbon fiber and prepreg fabric capabilities to meet customer needs more efficiently.
GREATER, MORE EFFICIENT CAPACITY
Rather than looking at the new plant as something that will shift production away from America, the company looks at their plans as a way to increase both production and efficiency. Their new French plant will immediately increase the company's total output. Meanwhile, American operations can continue to grow and expand to meet demand here. It is a win-win on both sides of the Atlantic.
As for the aerospace industry, they need as much composite manufacturing capacity as they can get their hands on. Aerospace companies are deadlocked in a heated competition that will ultimately determine who dominates the skies. Bigger airliners with larger capacity are always on the horizon, but to make those future plans a reality, companies like Airbus and Boeing have to have steady access to carbon fiber products.
Here at Rock West Composites, we benefit from the fact that the aerospace industry has an insatiable appetite for composites. The fact that aerospace buys so much from the carbon fiber industry makes it possible for us to continue doing what we do. Their demand supports an entire industry that is then able to meet the demands of other industries.
AEROSPACE IS A PROVING GROUND
In addition to keeping the demand for composites growing, the aerospace industry also acts as a proving ground of sorts. What gets developed in the search for ever bigger airplanes leads to improvements in other areas as well. For example, modern carbon fiber bike frames are what they are because of what the industry has learned from aerospace production.
What companies like Boeing and Airbus have learned over the years is being put to use by SpaceX in their pursuit of the first space vehicle capable of reaching Mars. And what SpaceX is learning through their own composite development programs will eventually be put to use by carmakers, sporting goods manufacturers, and so forth.
Much of the mass media coverage of carbon fiber revolves around flashy, sexy topics like high-performance cars and world-class cycle racing. Most people outside of our industry don't realize that the vast majority of the world's carbon fiber production goes to aerospace.
If it were not for competition in the aerospace sector, modern composites might look entirely different. For better or worse, we are what we are because the aerospace industry is committed to constantly making bigger, better, and more fuel-efficient planes. Keep that in mind next time you board a jumbo jet for a transatlantic flight.