I recently started a survey on the Reinforced Plastics LinkedIn group, asking this question.

The results so far are shown below, with lack of mass production/automation techniques and lack of knowledge of composites coming out on top, followed by higher prices of composites. 


Of course this is a very simplistic survey and in reality the industry faces a combination of challenges in different markets and regions of the world, as the following comments (posted on the LinkedIn) illustrate. 

Michael Ricks, Director Engineering Projects, GKN Driveline, Germany: The lack of mass production/automation techniques influence the price, but still beyond the efforts in this area the price for composite parts is limiting the applications.

Laurence (Laurie) Walker, Technical Director, Inovas Asset Integrity, Australia: Standardisation, design standards and good technical support/backup from my suppliers are my key issues when trying to increase composites acceptance. Structural engineers always want my composite solutions designed to code, with an extensive history and with a warranty. When there is no code, limited precedent and I can't get any warranty from my materials suppliers I know its going to be a hard sell.

I personally think that fabricators, designers and contractors need better support from materials suppliers both technically and through shared case studies to grow this industry. We usually do all our materials testing in-house because we can't get or trust the information from our suppliers.

Mikael Skrifvars, Professor, University of Borås, Sweden: Mass production of composites is a key area which must be developed, as then the costs will be reduced, and many new applications can be found, where the benefits with composites are useful. This means development of new processing techniques, and especially development of thermoplastic composites, especially liquid resin free system. 

A second challenge is recycling, which still has not been implemented.

Douglas Ashby, Technical Engineer, Maskell Productions, New Zealand: Agree with all the comments above but know from past experience it's price of the raw materials that is holding us back in a number of key markets. 

... it's price of the raw materials that is holding us back in a number of key markets.

We manufacture industrial products (pipe, tanks, ducting etc) and our competition is steel, concrete and thermoplastics. We are still 25-30% more expensive than thermoplastics and so we lose market share. Our manufacturing costs plant and labour are less than most other materials so these are not factors in the end cost or sale price. So long as polyester resins remain at historical price points we will not compete with thermoplastics. 

The standards and design are well proven in our field with a wide range of standards from Europe and USA with decades of history and prior use so these are not the reasons we lose out to alternative materials.

Ray Khan, Director of Quality and Environmental Standards, Hambleside Danelaw, UK: The answer is probably all of the above and more. 

For a start there is a lack of awareness of the benefits of composite structures in a lot of industries. The composites industry also has not been that adventurous, in a lot of industries they just copy the traditional product, such as steel beams and make them in composites.

The fact that there are a lot of small companies in the composites sector also does not help as although there are some excellent ones, others are very questionable on the manufacturing standards they adopt either by lack of knowledge of the composites manufacturing process or materials, or because they just want to make a fast buck.

The relative small market size means that a lot of companies are manufacturing bespoke products and so cannot use automation ...

The relative small market size means that a lot of companies are manufacturing bespoke products and so cannot use automation, even the aerospace and automotive companies do not provide for large production runs compared to some materials.

Legislation may not help, as with the End of Life Vehicle Directive in Europe wherby 85% of a vehicle has to be recycled at end of life, with no recycling route in some countries this will restrict the amount of GRP in a vehicle.

Standards are another problem, especially in ship building where the standards adopted are based upon steel plate etc. and cannot always be met by composites.

Cost is a problem but often the longer term benefits can outweigh this.

So there is not one definitive answer but a combination of many.

What do you think?

My thanks to those above, and everyone else, who has contributed to this discussion on LinkedIn. Do you agree or disagree with these comments? Join the discussion here.  

By Amanda Jacob, Editor, Reinforced Plastics magazine.