Whilst the carbon fibre composites industry as a whole continues to post growth in double digits, the carbon fibre manufacturing industry is perhaps a little less bullish. You might think that with carbon fibre composite growth forecasts you might see something similar in carbon fibre manufacturing forecasts, but this side of the business has always been somewhat cautious in rising to meet such heady growth heights.
Granted, some of the incumbents are rising to the challenge, such as Toray, SGL , MRC and Hexcel, but considering it takes upwards of two years to get a carbon fibre manufacturing line up and running you might imagine you'd see some very bold announcements of capacity increase...not so many, yet.
Cost is a great leveller here, building a carbon fibre line is capital intensive and gone are the days when just building a line got you into the industry, these days vertical integration has to be considered which really ramps up cost and commitment. This tends to sort the men from the boys.
The cost of oil based PAN precursor adds considerably to operating costs and with the current geo political upheavals there is every reason to expect that the price will increase. There is currently a quest for the holy grail of cheaper precursors such as lignin and polyolefins, but they have their challenges and are perhaps some way off in terms of meeting current PAN based properties and capacity requirements.
SGL/BMW have certainly stolen a march on the automotive world with, what was thought at the time to be, a very bold move into volume carbon fibre composite cars with the i3 and i8. Many of the other auto manufacturers have given the carbon fibre industry plenty of notice that they are coming but as yet none of the strategic auto/carbon fibre composite collaborations seems to have borne any real fruit for the mass market......so far.
Both Boeing and Airbus move forward apace with their 787 and A350 programmes and doubtless their respective designers will have their new generation airplanes already on the drawing board.
Wind power seems to be the one part of our industry that really does seem to be growing, even though there is still a lot of opposition to the siting of turbines and their effect on the landscape.
Industrial uses are growing quite well too, CNG Tanks, Oil & Gas, Electrical Cables are ones that stand out.
So with all this positive growth in the use of carbon fibre composites why are we not seeing a similar trend in the manufacturing of the virgin carbon fibre?
New plant activity has been focussed mainly in China for the past few years but this has slowed down considerably and they have yet to make any real impact on world supply, there are new countries just on the threshold, but as said before, it can take upwards of two years to get a new line fully operational producing quality material. So where is the extra capacity to come from?
This is where the present incumbents are most likely to step into the breach, but the trouble is the industry has always been a little wary of matching capacity with projected growth...they've been bitten before. No one wants an inverted supply and demand situation, these cycles are what our industry was plagued with pre 2001. The steady growth from 2001, financial hiatus aside, has been the longest prolonged growth the industry has seen, but we seem to have peaked at the moment...it's almost as if the industry is waiting to see who blinks first.
Hopefully we will see some real increase in carbon fibre manufacturing capacity in 2015/2016 and the incumbents will most likely be first to blink.