High in Fiber, Low in Weight
Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic is like a dieter’s dream: It packs a fibrous punch without any of the weighty, undesired baggage. So much so in fact, that it is expected to take over the plastics world in no time at all.
Global demand for lightweight composite materials is skyrocketing. This is due in large part to trends in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and improving resource efficiency. Thanks to its weight, versatility, durability, and strength, the rising star among the lightweight composites is carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP). Indeed, a 2012 McKinsey study found that CFRP will enjoy the highest growth rate of all lightweight materials over the next two decades, as its costs drop by up to two thirds. Another report estimates that demand for CFRP will more than triple between 2012 and 2020, from 65,000 to 208,000 metric tons.
What’s more, the field of application for CFRP is virtually unlimited and can range from making lighter prostheses and faster canoes to constructing more durable rebars. At the moment, its advantages are currently being exploited primarily in the automotive, aerospace, and wind energy sectors – three areas in which Germany has positioned itself as a global leader.
Germany is likewise Europe’s top location for plastics and the biggest magnet for related FDI. Companies and research establishments are determined to be CFRP pioneers along the entire idea-innovation-implementation chain – from finding the chemical formulations needed to make the strongest materials and designing state-of-the-art manufacturing automation to integrating them into the products of the future.
This future-oriented drive benefits from Germany’s unparalleled R&D landscape and tradition of close cooperation among companies as well as between science and industry. In May 2013, for example, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) celebrated the opening of its Augsburg branch of the Center for Lightweight Production Technology (ZLP), where it now works with other partners to develop flexible production processes for CFRP using automated robotic systems. Two months later, Germany’s four leading clusters in the CFRP industry teamed up to found an umbrella trade
organization, Composites Germany, which aims to pool know-how and resources to bolster their combined innovative strength (see interview below).
This BMW is just one example of how CFRP is used in vehicle production. | © BMW AG Recognizing the myriad location advantages and business opportunities, foreign companies big and small have been setting up CFRP-related businesses in Germany, investing in German companies, and entering into collaborative efforts with German firms and research institutions. In 2007, the US-based company Hexcel opened a plant in Stade, Lower Saxony, to be close to the Hamburg-based operations of Airbus, a major customer of its carbon-fiber-preimpregnated fibers (prepreg). In 2012, with the assistance of Germany Trade & Invest, the supply chain became even more concentrated and efficient when Web Industries, another US firm, opened a facility at the same location to convert Hexcel’s prepreg into composite slit tape for use in aerospace components.
Toray Industries represents an example of both successful investment and collaboration. In 2008, the Japanese carbon-fiber giant purchased a 21 percent stake in ACE Advanced Composite Engineering GmbH, a specialist in molding, forming, and machining CFRP automotive parts, based in Immenstaad, Baden-Württemberg. Three years later, it launched a joint venture, Euro Advanced Carbon Fiber Composites GmbH, with the German automaker Daimler in nearby Esslingen, to design, manufacture, and market CFRP automotive parts. The company is therefore making the most of investment opportunities in Germany’s innovative CFRP landscape.
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A Fibrous Advantage
Excellent business opportunities in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) await investors in Germany, says Dr. Elmar Witten, spokesman for Composites Germany, founded in July 2013. Composites Germany promotes innovation, technology, and the development of standards. As Europe’s largest composites network, it helps foreign investors make contact with key players along the entire CFRP value chain.
Dr. Elmar Witten | © AVK
What are the current trends in the CFRP sector in Germany?
Dr. Elmar Witten: Manufacturing CFRP components is among the key technologies in Germany, and products find application in cutting-edge fields, such as electromobility, wind energy, and new infrastructure projects.
How competitive is Germany’s CFRP research, production, and investment?
Witten: Germany holds a leading global position in several key application fields, such as the automotive, aerospace, and machine-building sectors. Currently, resource efficiency, Germany’s energy revolution, and the related investments are driving R&D.
What does the future hold?
Witten: There is great potential for Germany in automating and linking high-volume production processes. We already have a leading role thanks to our innovative power and automation know-how.
Where are the largest investments being made?
Witten: At the moment, the biggest investments are primarily going into research related to manufacturing and integrating the individual steps of production.
What role can small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) play in developing and integrating CFRP?
Witten: In many cases, CFRP is still being used in special segments and in limited quantities. So, given their specialization, SMEs can play an enormous role in driving innovation. Furthermore, thanks to their structure, SMEs can often respond to changing requirements and general conditions better than large companies.
What is the German CFRP investment climate like?
Witten: Our most recent survey found that the investment climate continues to develop positively: companies plan to boost employee numbers as well as investments in processing equipment. Germany is also expected to be a major driver within the European composites sector, with CFRP stimulating the most growth on the material side.
Where are the most promising opportunities for foreign companies?
Witten: Because carbon fibers are mainly produced abroad, the best opportunities in Germany are found in the downstream stages of the supply chain, such as in product improvement, product innovation, and coming up with new applications (R&D and joint projects).
More Information: www.composites-germany.org