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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Composites as Commodity Materials

Well, Whether the composites industry wants to see this or not, composites – both carbon fiber and glass fiber – have become commodity items.  As the lead image in this post shows, you can buy glass fiber structural shapes that are a direct replacement for their steel counterparts and you can also buy carbon fiber structural shapes (square, round, and rectangular tubes and flat sheets) that you can use to make any manner of structures quickly, easily, and inexpensively. 


The pic above (Strongwell Extren®) shows just such an application.  This is a roof truss for a building made entirely from fiberglass structural shapes – I-beams, channels, angles, and flat reinforcing plates.  All of this is bonded and bolted together, and this sort of construction is beginning to take place worldwide, especially for very tall buildings where weight savings in the upper floors of these high rises becomes the critical design challenge for structural engineers.  These members you see in the pic below are direct replacements for the steel members they replace and weigh a third of what their steel counterparts weigh. 

There are a number of advantages that this material product form provides.  These pultruded shapes are roughly cost equivalent to their steel counterparts on a per piece basis.  There is no welding required because they are bonded and bolted, so assembly time is significantly reduced.  And since they are light weight it takes fewer people to handle the same size beam so there is less touch labor required.  In all, they are a cost-effective replacement for steel structural members in the high rise construction industry.

There are several manufacturers of these shapes that all compete on cost.  And that is the definition of a commodity product – when competition is not based on the mechanical or physical properties of a product but is based on the cost of a product. 

So, what about carbon fiber composites?  There are a few companies that produce standard shapes in carbon fiber as well.  The image below shows what you can get from two different vendors of carbon fib er structural shapes – DragonPlate (left) and Avient (right) – both of which are US headquartered companies and both of which have a global presence.  And they compete with one another both on what shapes they can produce as well as cost, which again defines these as commodity products.  You can even buy DragonPlate carbon fiber shapes in stock sizes and lengths on Amazon. 


This is, of course, just a couple of examples of how composites, including carbon fiber composites, have become commodity products.  What this means is that now the onus is now on the fiber and resin manufacturers as well as the composite commodity product producers to reduce their costs just to stay in business. 

This is especially true of the carbon fiber business.  I talked a bit a few posts ago about carbon fiber and the coming onslaught of large wind turbine installations primarily offshore in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, as well as on land in areas like the Coachella Valley and the Livermore Hills here in California that have enormous wind resources driven primarily by the jet stream that blows west to east over the Pacific Coast of the US.  It has been estimated that the total worldwide manufacturing capacity must increase by an order of magnitude (yes – ten times) in total tonnage produced per year in two or three decades just to keep up with the demand from the burgeoning wind power industry.  And now with the incentives and political will for renewable energy development to replace coal, oil, and natural gas here in the US, and in Europe as well as China, it appears that this estimate may be a bit low. 

The bottom line here is that this also pushes the industry to a much more sustainable future most probably based in bio-composites.  There simply isn’t enough oil and natural gas to sustain a materials business that relies primarily on the chemistry of carbon.  The fact that the industry has awakened – at least partially – to this realization can be seen in the websites of companies like Teijin, Toho Tenax, and even Toray Industries – the major carbon fiber producers.  All of them are working on plant-based, or biomass based, or organic agricultural and forest products waste for their precursors for carbon fiber and even resin systems.  And there are a few commercial products that have hit the market that are either entirely bio-based or at least have enough bio-waste content that they can be considered on the path to sustainability. 

I for one do not believe this is wishful thinking because I have been involved in this industry for some time, and have been watching the shift.  Even most of the technical conferences now by both organizations like Composites World as well as the national and international technical societies like ASME, IEEE, SAMPE and others are focusing on the future of materials engineering and sustainability of production of the materials that are used to make everyday products for the consumer market of today worldwide.  So, composites are becoming commodity products and the producers that realize that are going to be in this business 50 years from now.  Those that don’t will inevitably end up in the dust bin of history.  I realize this is a fairly tough lesson for some, but it is going to happen. 

That’s about enough for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



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