Will advanced composites move into the marine mainstream?
By Staff | September 2007
Independent consultant, writer and syndicated columnist Michael R. LeGault is the former editor of Canadian Plastics and has served as a columnist with The Washington Times and as an editor at The Financial Post. In 2002, LeGault received the Canadian Business Press Award for best regularly featured column. He received a BS in biology/chemistry from the University of Michigan, and a MS in chemistry from the University of Miami (Fla.). His book, Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can't Be Made in the Blink of an Eye, was published in January 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The days when carbon fiber was just a material that gave wealthy yachters the chance to "hang more lead off their keels" have passed. While the marine carbon fiber market is still small, carbon is moving into a more diverse range of increasingly commercial, large-scale marine applications. The potential for growth is significant — if enough carbon fiber is available at an acceptable price.
Gauging the size of the marine carbon fiber market involves educated guesswork because there is no good mechanism for tracking carbon fiber sales to specific markets. Standard reporting regimes — NAICS codes, for example — lack this specificity. Additionally, public companies tend to provide only general information about their markets.
One way to ballpark market size is to assume that the market breakdown at a large composite materials manufacturer roughly reflects the general market. For example, figures released by supplier Gurit (Wattwil, Switzerland) suggest that the marine market accounted for no more than 10 percent of the company's total 2006 sales. In addition, based on Gurit's sales figures, carbon fiber accounts for no more than 10 percent of the total composite materials sold into the marine industry. That puts Gurit's sales of carbon fiber materials to the marine industry at roughly 1 percent of its total sales.
Toray Industries (Tokyo, Japan) has estimated worldwide annual demand for PAN-based carbon fiber at 59 million lb (26,760 metric tonnes). If we assume that marine accounts for roughly 1 percent of Toray's estimated worldwide demand, then the size of the marine carbon fiber market is about 590,000 lb (267 metric tonnes).
Richard O'Meara, president of advanced composite materials distributor Core Composites Inc. (Newport, R.I.), believes the actual size is slightly lower. Having consulted with marine customers for more than two decades, O'Meara puts the estimate at 405,000 lb (184 metric tonnes) per year, with masts, high-performance sailing boats and megayachts currently the three highest-consuming applications (see Table 1, p. 9).
If we split the difference between the two estimates, we have 500,000 lb (almost 227 metric tonnes) per year, worth $10 million to $12 million (USD). Marine carbon fiber growth at "break out" stage
Although the market is relatively small, indications are that it is poised for significant growth. One indicator is new boat sales, which hit bottom in 2003, rebounded in 2004 and since have grown at roughly prerecession rates, according to the National Marine Manufacturer's Assn. (see Table 2, p. 9). Sales for outboard and inboard boats (not broken out in the table) were down again in 2006, but new boat unit sales were up 6 percent, led by canoes and kayaks, which were up by 29 and 13 percent, respectively.
The jump in canoe sales is significant because carbon is increasingly used in high-end canoe designs. Gordon Shank, district sales manager at carbon fabric supplier JB Martin Ltd. (St. Jean Sur Richelieu, Quebec, Canada), reports that using carbon fiber in the 90° or transverse axis and glass or aramid in the 0° axis is the trend. "By combining carbon with glass," he explains, "you get the stiffness but neutralize the inherent brittleness of carbon fiber." Canoes, however, are just the beginning.
While the use of carbon fiber in sailing yacht rigging systems — masts, shrouds, stays and spreaders — has become standard, says Al Horsmon, chief naval architect, Gurit USA Inc. (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), the practice is now spreading, primarily in Europe, to the upper deck structures of mega poweryachts to decrease topside weight and increase boat stability.
Elsewhere, the racing boat category has been a steady but flat-growth segment of marine carbon fiber use because it is specialized and small. Observers, however, see the greatest growth potential in a closely related but much larger segment, the 20-ft to 40-ft sport or "cruiser" boat. Although cruisers historically feature fiberglass construction, a study conducted by boatbuilder Baja Marine (Bucyrus, Ohio) found that it was more economical to use 50K carbon fabric than multiple layers of fiberglass on stringer-beam systems used to provide structural support for decks, bulkheads and other structures. Baja VP of operations Bill Regan says his plant now builds about 1,000 boats a year with carbon-fiber stringer-beam systems. The company is also building four or five high-performance boats a year with hybrid S-glass/Kevlar/carbon hulls and decks. He says he expects the use of carbon fiber in the company's boats to expand.
Carbon's incursion into the cruiser segment could be a turning point. "That's where the meat of the market is," O'Meara contends. "If Brunswick [Baja's parent company] alone uses 25 lb of carbon fiber per boat, on average, and builds, say, 15,000 units a year, that is 350,000 lb of new carbon fiber demand just from one company."
According to marine market research firm Info-Link Technologies Inc. (South Miami, Fla.), total registrations for new high-performance and cruiser boats in 2006 totaled more than 58,000. At 25 lb/11.3 per boat, annual carbon fiber consumption in this segment alone could reach nearly 1.5 million lb (680.3 metric tonnes) — three times the size of the current overall marine carbon market. Incorporation of carbon into all cruisers may seem far-fetched, but O'Meara believes other sport boat manufacturers will be forced to follow the trend to stay competitive.
Horsmon believes that military boats are a potentially huge market for carbon fiber. While carbon fiber has long been used in military aircraft, use in military boats has been limited because the technical challenges are greater. "You obviously have more highly loaded parts in water than in air," he notes, pointing out that military boats require higher weight/strength ratios than commercial boats.
According to Horsmon, enabling technologies, especially resin infusion molding, are paving the way for greater acceptance and use of carbon fiber in naval applications. Gurit USA, he notes, has worked as a subcontractor in the development of two all-carbon, prototype littoral (shallow water) military craft, the 82-ft Mark V.1 and the 80-ft Stiletto (see "Inside Manufacturing" in this issue, p. 42). Horsmon says the government has not given the go-ahead to put either boat into production, but if it does, each could replace a fleet of 20 to 40 existing boats over the long-term.
Yet, just when demand for carbon in marine is accelerating, the market has rolled a boulder in the way. Although the worldwide supply of carbon fiber is increasing, it is still outpaced by demand. The result has been a four-fold increase in the price of the material over the past three to four years.
"The pricing issue has had an adverse effect on carbon in marine," reports JB Martin's Shank. "Commercial applications that were ripe for the picking have been delayed."
The short-term impact on growth is hard to pinpoint, but the above indicates that some new applications are moving forward despite the price spike. However, the good news, Shank says, is that commercial applications for marine "should really take off" when supply gets in line with demand. Full relief from the carbon fiber shortage, however, may be a year or more away. Toray is investing $452 million to boost its per-year production capacity of PAN-based carbon fiber from 30.65 million lb to 39.46 million lb (13,900 metric tonnes to 17,900 metric tonnes) by 2009. The increase will include a new 3.97 million lb/yr (1,800 metric ton/yr) production line at the company's subsidiary plant in Decatur, Ala. The company also is boosting its prepreg production capacity by 34 percent to 363.8 million ft2 (33.7 million m2) annually over the same period. Hexcel Corp. (Dublin, Calif.) announced an $80 million expansion that will increase its production of carbon fiber 40 percent by 2008.
Tim McCarthy, VP of sales and marketing for Zoltek Corp. (St. Louis, Mo.), says his company is boosting its annual commercial-grade (50K) fiber capacity from 3,000 tons to 10,500 tons (6.61 million lb to 23.1 million lb) by 2008, a 350 percent increase in little more than three years. "We designed this company to be able to respond to a surge in the market," Zoltek's McCarthy maintains. "We can build a line in six months, whereas the industry standard is over two years."
Additionally, Fiberex, a manufacturer of E-CR glass in Leduc, Alberta, Canada, reportedly is installing a carbon fiber line, which is scheduled to begin operation sometime in 2009. The capacity and type of carbon that will be produced on the line were not known at press time. According to an industry source, however, the company is currently taking orders out to a year in advance.
Although Toray predicts 15 percent annual growth in demand through 2010, planned capacity increases (those outlined above and others) should meet this demand. When it does, Shank believes marine carbon fiber growth could exceed the high single- to low double-digit growth of the past decade.
Considering only the active applications that are coming into the market, O'Meara predicts overall marine carbon fiber growth of 20 percent per year for the next five years. In the long-term? O'Meara sees an even rosier picture: "The use of carbon fiber in boats is going to grow exponentially."
For a detailed discussion of the ways and means by which carbon fiber is being employed by boatbuilders, see "Carbon Buys Its Way Onboard," in this issue, p. 48.