One market research report after another shows very good things for the carbon fiber industry. On average, industry growth is expected to exceed 10% annually through about 2025. Researchers suggest that aerospace will continue to be the largest consumer, with significant growth in automotive and construction applications.
Rock West Composites, a Utah company dealing in composite materials including carbon fiber and fiberglass, suggests growth in sporting goods, marine, and electronics manufacturing as well. At the same time, they fully understand that there are no guarantees. Any industry can look promising now only to see the bottom drop out a few years down the road.
For the carbon fiber industry, there are five prominent risks that could jeopardize the future. None of the risks appear threatening at the current time, but they are out there. The industry will have to manage them well in order to achieve the growth so many research reports anticipate.
1. Prohibitively High Pricing
It is common knowledge that carbon fiber is stronger and more durable than aluminum and steel. So why haven’t the metals been completely replaced by now? Because carbon fiber is very costly to manufacture. Prohibitively high pricing is the one factor that could prove the biggest risk to the industry. If manufacturers are not able to bring the cost of carbon fiber down significantly within the next 5 to 10 years, less expensive products may emerge to take its place.
2. Lack of Recycling
Carbon fiber waste only adds to the expense of using it for manufacturing. At least with aluminum and steel, the waste can be recycled. Until large-scale recycling is available for carbon fiber, companies will continue to see waste as lost revenue. The industry has to find a way to recycle carbon fiber efficiently and without compromising the integrity of the material.
3. Other Products Emerging
Many people don’t know that carbon fiber, in the form we use it today, was actually invented back in the late 1950s. It is by no means a new material. But it has taken decades of slow, expensive research to get us where we are today. There is a very real risk of newer products emerging, products that are developed faster and more efficiently than carbon fiber. Such products could mean a premature end to carbon fiber manufacturing.
4. A Different Direction for Aerospace
Today’s carbon fiber industry would be nowhere near its current value if not for the aerospace industry. Aerospace companies account for the largest share of carbon fiber consumption in the world. The risk is always there that they will go in another direction. If they can find a cheaper way to manufacture airplanes without going backward in terms of size and performance, it could mean big problems for carbon fiber.
5. A Lack of Investment
Last but not least is the very real risk of a lack of investment. We have seen this in other industries, like renewable energy for example. Renewable energy still cannot stand on its own because of a lack of private funding. And without that funding, innovation is really tough to pull off.
A similar lack of investment in carbon fiber could slow the pace of innovation even more than it already is. Meanwhile, any investment money put into other emerging technologies could mean they flourish at carbon fiber’s expense.
As previously stated, none of these risks pose a serious threat to the carbon fiber industry at this time. As long as the industry continues managing the risks, projected growth will probably be realized. Let’s hope the industry does exactly that.