Opportunities and challenges

6 min read
The transporation market is top of Ketel's list for future growth of the composites industry.
The transporation market is top of Ketel's list for future growth of the composites industry.
New economies, such as China, are a threat to the Western composites industry, says Ketel.
New economies, such as China, are a threat to the Western composites industry, says Ketel.
Jaap Ketel.
Jaap Ketel.

It all started for me in 1962, when I was on a school excursion visiting Werk-spoor, the Dutch railway coach builder in Utrecht. There I saw products such as rail coach windowsills, roof sections and toilet interiors made by hand laminating. Also on a small filament winder a cubicle for pouring concrete was made. The completely new and different way of manufacturing ‘fibreglass,’ as it was then called, made me excited and curious. What I learned at my engineering college about traditional materials such as concrete, metal and wood, suddenly appeared less interesting.

After obtaining a Civil Engineering degree and a degree in Business Administration at the Netherlands International Business School, I got married in 1968. With my wife Iemeke I went to Australia to work for a daughter company of Werkspoor, called WorldCon. I was going to assist in building the Westgate Bridge across the lower Yarra River in Melbourne. Fortunately, I decided at the very last moment not to take this job, since the bridge collapsed during construction, killing over 40 workers. Instead I started to work for Humes Australia as their State Engineer for Tasmania. There I got my first exposure to composites through a subsidiary company of Humes, called Viking Plastics. This company over-wrapped thermoplastic pipes with fibreglass and polyester resins for improved performance.

After four years in Australia I went back to the Netherlands and was hired by Wavin International to sell their fibreglass epoxy pipe systems in Europe and the Middle East. I did so for four years until the second oil crisis came and I was asked by the American oilfield contractor Weatherford to work for them as Assistant Manager Drilling and Downhole Completions. I gained a lot of experience in high performance materials under the severe conditions encountered in the oil industry. This then gave me the right know-how to join Koch Fiberglass of Wichita, Kansas, because Koch, then the biggest composite oil field tubulars manufacturer in the world was the best learning experience I had with long term performance testing of composite materials.

The close cooperation of engineers and consultants working for Koch and at the same time for the aerospace industry in Wichita was an eye-opener for me. I already sensed that composites, though then only used for non-structural applications in aircraft building, eventually could be used for full structural applications in aerospace technology.

From pipes to profiles

A car accident in 1977 put an end to the Koch job, but I recovered and started my own company, called Ketech. This company traded, assembled and sold various types of composite pipe systems to the oilfield, water and wastewater markets in Western Europe and the Caribbean. After almost 10 years of growth and developing new markets for composites in many new applications, I decided to sell my share in the company and start a new business as a composites consultant. I could not resist the temptation however to again get involved in selling composite projects. This time however composite pipes were not my interest, but pultruded composite profiles. I had already seen some production of pultruded profiles by then, and it seemed to me that this technology was ready for a great future.

Meanwhile I got a request from a group of composite pipe and tank manufacturers who wanted to promote their products in Europe as a joint effort. This was based on the fact that in the USA these products were very successful. So I founded the European Promotion Association for Composite Pipes and Tubulars (EPACT). With about 30 members EPACT promoted the use and application of composite pipes and tanks for petrol fuel stations all over Europe. At about the same time I was asked to set up a similar group for the promotion of pultruded composite profiles. Having seen the success of jointly promoting composite technology, pultruders got together in Brussels in 1989 and founded the European Pultrusion Technology Association (EPTA). They asked the initiator of the request, Mr Luigi Giamundo of ATP Pultrusion in Italy, to become the first Chairman and I became the Association Director. EPTA group grew from only 12 pultruders at the beginning, to almost 100 members within the first 10 years. After that the membership declined however through take-overs, mergers and also companies going out of business for one reason or another.

Transport and energy

I have had the opportunity over more than 20 years to observe the growth, diminishing, successes and failures of composite materials, processes, products and systems as a relative outsider. This has made me a ‘generic industry expert’, with no particular expertise, but with a good overview on where our industry is heading.

I would classify the transportation market as the number one market for future growth. Transport is closely associated with energy consumption. The ever-increasing cost of energy, especially generated by burning hydrocarbons, is going to be the major driving force for the future growth of the composites industry. Anything moving needs energy. Only sailboats can use the wind, but planes, trains, trucks, trailers and even private cars must use energy to move. Moving mass is moving weight, and the more weight, the more energy you need. A child can understand that. So if you want to reduce the cost of energy use, you must reduce the weight! So this is where the composites industry must focus on to be successful. I realise that there are many other opportunities out there, but I believe that a focus on a specific sector will have spin-offs in others.

One of these spin-off sectors is the bridge sector. Not a very likely candidate to need energy to move around, but it is interesting to note that arguments of lightweight and reduced maintenance costs could be related to lifetime energy consumption. My continued involvement as General Secretary of COBRAE (Composite BRidge Alliance Europe) has brought me into contact with my old profession again, civil engineering, and civil engineers, ie. bridge engineers. These professionals, by definition are very conservative, but also very environmentally driven. I was surprised to learn that today, when specifying bridge constructions, lifetime cost and lifetime environmental impact, were related to energy consumption.

Global warming and composites

In fact, all products manufactured need energy for material and production. Therefore, I was pleased to see that at MIT, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Professor Timothy G. Gutowski, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, is doing research into the energy use of manufacturing processes of materials. I am sure that composites are going to be the winner in many areas of manufacturing products.

“Manufacturing processes can be thought of as products with a huge energy appetite,” Gutowski says. “These processes contribute to global warming, but are not visible to the public, unlike gas-guzzling SUVs or images of melting polar ice caps.”

Many people are not aware of the energy requirement for many manufacturing processes, claims Gutowski, who after extensive work in aerospace materials and composites, switched some years ago to a more observant role since he wished to contribute to society in, what he calls ‘a bigger way.’

This is why I invited Professor Gutowski to deliver the keynote paper at the forthcoming Global Pultrusion Conference in Baltimore on 7-8 June. This paper, to be given in honour of the late Steve Loud, editor of Global Composite News E-magazine, should set the tone for the theme of this conference. This is the first time that a fully dedicated pultrusion conference will be held in the USA. I have organised Eight World Pultrusion Conferences for EPTA in Europe. Now is the time to also have a dedicated pultrusion conference on the other side of the ocean. After all, an American – Mr Brandt Goldsworthy - invented the pultrusion process, American companies developed it further and today America is leading in the technology.

New economies and composites

But I see dangers, and not only for the pultrusion industry. The whole of the Western composites industry should be concerned. Upcoming economies such as China, India, Korea and Malaysia are rapidly developing composites technologies and production processing. Examples are the composite bridge decks developed and manufactured in Korea. I am also the organiser of the COBRAE Annual Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, on 29-30 March on Composites in Infrastructure. Out of the 40 papers submitted for this conference, eight came from South East Asian countries and contain high technology composite developments for civil engineering constructions.

Another good example of original ‘out of the box’ composite engineering I came across recently, is Metrail, a Malaysian company (www.metrail.com) which has developed an all composite, low energy, monorail system, unique in the world. When I showed this as a good example of composite technology to a professional railway consultant, he laughed and said that this idea would not fly! However, when he took a second look at the energy consumption of this public transport system, he stopped laughing and agreed that ‘composites and energy’ could well be the criteria for future success in public transport.

The subject of composites and energy is strongly related to population growth, mobility and transport systems. Countries which have new economies are less hindered by rules, regulations, laws and standards, and they are able to start from a different playing field. These countries have the best of both worlds – their own low cost of manufacturing and highly educated population, and the ‘loan’ of the often ‘rusted’ technology know-how from western countries. South East Asia is going to be in strong competition with the Western world. This should be a major concern to our whole industry. That is why I am organising, under the name of European Composite Industry Forum (ECIF), a Composite Industry Executive Dinner party on the Eiffel Tower the day before JEC 2007 starts. Here the Director and expert of the European Manufacturing Group of Deloitte Europe, Dr Kees L. van Dorp, will speak on this subject.

After my excursion to China two years ago I saw that the Chinese had achieved a fairly high standard in composite engineering within a few years of development. I agree with Kees van Dorp's slogan ‘be different!’ This is the only way the western composite industry can sustain, by being one step ahead of the rest of the world and focus on what is the most important area for future growth and development – composites and energy. If I had a little extra money, I would invest in that field but unfortunately, like most of us working in the composite industry, we never make enough to do so.