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Potentially as revolutionary as the Spinning Jenny

Adrian Wilson caught up with FMG director Peter George and research analyst Myriam Yagoubi at the JEC World show in Paris.

24th March 2016

Innovation in Textiles
 |  Paris


The Cambridge, UK-based Future Materials Group (FMG) is a strategic advisory firm which has just released the results of its new analysis into potential growth scenarios for the carbon fibre market over the next 20 years. Adrian Wilson caught up with FMG director Peter George and research analyst Myriam Yagoubi at the JEC World show in Paris.

Adrian Wilson: You see two big opportunities for carbon fibre-based composites on the horizon – in narrow-bodied aircraft and in the mass automotive market, beyond Formula 1 and luxury cars. Let’s start with aerospace. How could this market develop?

Peter George: Carbon fibre has become increasingly important to the commercial aerospace sector over the past decade, following its adoption in the latest Boeing and Airbus wide-body aircraft platforms. The primary structures of the Boeing B787 and Airbus A350 are around fifty per cent carbon fibre composites.

Myriam Yagoubi: But in narrow-bodied planes, it’s only between ten and fifteen per cent, and then restricted largely to non-structural applications.

Myriam Yagoubi. © Future Materials Group

AW: What are the drivers for the use of carbon fibre here?

PG: As with the progress in wide-body planes, the key driver is lightweighting, in order to help operators save fuel costs and reduce emissions in line with increasingly stringent environmental legislation but the shorter flight lengths of narrow bodies make their business model very different.

MY: Perhaps even more important benefits include parts consolidation and lower maintenance for reduced life cycle costs.

AW: So what if, over the next twenty years, the new narrow body platforms adopted carbon fibre at the same level as the wide bodies?

MY: The total market for carbon fibre would triple from what it is today to be worth more than two billion dollars.

PG: But it would mean at least one or two new carbon fibre lines being put in place every year for the next twenty years.

Peter George. © Future Materials Group

AW: Is that likely?

PG: In the past there has been a challenge simultaneously coordinating supply and demand, leading to big price cycles and resulting in caution by the carbon fibre manufacturers and potential users. If the demand was so high then the incremental volume of one line would be relatively much smaller than it has been in the past and less of an investment risk for fibre manufacturers.

MY: But such high volumes markets are where lower cost, advanced automation and reduced waste will all become key factors.

AW: That brings us conveniently to your projections for the mass automotive market, which are on another scale altogether.

MY: Yes, the automotive market is still growing across all platforms but may be at a pivotal point in its history.

PG: It’s down to expanded regulatory requirements and a shift in consumer demand. They’re uniting to bring about a change in product mix, more sustainable vehicles and electric cars.

The automotive market is still growing across all platforms. © Future Materials Group

AW: So what could happen here?

MY: Well, if just one per cent of a luxury or niche car were made of carbon fibre, the carbon fibre automotive market would grow exponentially from the 200 million dollars it’s worth today yo up to three billion dollars in the next twenty years, easily.

PG: And at the same time, if mass market cars were to adopt just a kilogram of carbon fibre per car on average, the market could double again to six billion dollars.

The nascent automotive market for carbon fibre composites is very diverse and fragmented. © Future Materials Group

AW: But can the carbon fibre industry actually rise to meet such demand?

PG: It would then need to build a new line every two months, representing an investment of thirteen billion dollars over the next twenty years, and also switch its focus from aerospace-grade small tow to large tow suitable for higher volume applications.

MY: There’s a lot of risk in the investment involved, but obviously a major opportunity. If even half of our predictions come true, in twenty years the automotive market for carbon fibre will be five times that of the aerospace market.

PG: But it won’t be just a question of straight replacement of traditional materials for parts, but more of completely redesigning things from the ground up and a new chapter of carbon fibre placement and processing. I hesitate to make such an analogy, but I really think that what’s happening now in this field is as potentially game changing for the fibre processing industry as the impact of the Spinning Jenny two hundred and fifty years ago.

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