From the automotive industry to aerospace, composites are everywhere. These combinations of components – sometimes referred to as FRP or fiber-reinforced polymers – boast countless advantages over materials such as steel since they do not rust and are extremely durable yet lightweight, making them ideal for airplanes, storage tanks, windmill blades and much more.
Composites are strong, resistant to breaks and cracks and can be formed into a wide variety of shapes to create everything from products used to protect police officers and soldiers from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bullets, build corrosion-resistant bridges that do not deteriorate, make utility poles free from harmful chemicals like creosote and form products impervious to salt water – ideal for marine applications.
The American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) is the world’s largest trade group speaking on behalf of the composite industry from its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The ACMA’s membership of 460 includes companies of all sizes from across the United States and internationally, including manufacturers, suppliers, composite distributors, affiliates, academia and end users.
The association has come a long way since it was first formed by a group of individuals who felt the needs of small composite fabricators were not being met. It was created as a ‘labor of love’ back in 1979 and was then known as the Fiberglass Fabrication Association (FFA). The FFA changed its name to the Composites Fabricators Association (CFA) in 1991 and again in 2003 to the American Composites Manufacturers Association to better reflect the scope of its membership.
The ACMA has steadily grown in prominence and membership but remains dedicated to expanding the composites market and providing valuable information about the many advantages of these materials. Like manufacturing itself, the composites sector has adapted to changes in technology, and ACMA has seen a transition over the past three to five years.
“Today, we have some major carbon fiber companies that are selling products in the United States interested in our work,” says Tom Dobbins, who has been president of the American Composites Manufacturers Association since 2006. “Companies like Toray Composite Materials America, Mitsubishi, Hexcel Corporation and Toho Tenax America are members of ACMA, as well as the high-performance epoxy resin companies. We truly represent all the different reinforcement and resin companies in the U.S., and we have companies who are members from around the world.”
ACMA speaks for members from smaller businesses to large corporations and proudly educates other industries about the benefits of using composites. Just as ACMA has grown over almost 40 years, so has the composites sector. The relatively young industry has seen considerable consolidation.
America’s 3,000 composite companies employ over half a million workers in the U.S. alone and generate approximately $70 billion annually. These companies are involved in sectors many might not think of, including construction, transportation, clean energy, medical equipment, protective gear for police and military, sports and recreation, hospitals, restaurants and storage tanks for highly-corrosive chemical compounds.
Composites are changing our lives for the better. Thanks to composite materials, modern cars are safer, lighter and more fuel-efficient, making them better for the environment. Engineering marvels such as cars used in Formula One races – which can reach breathtaking speeds of 350 kilometers per hour – are made from lightweight yet strong carbon fiber, and NASCAR auto racing is also rapidly embracing the use of composites.
“For automotive, we are in the process of taking over,” comments Dobbins, who says one of the biggest challenges facing the ACMA is that many of today’s engineers were trained a generation ago in traditional materials and are not as comfortable with composites.
“So that’s the biggest hurdle we face in infrastructure, automotive and other markets we are penetrating. Even though we make a compelling case, it’s getting that local bridge engineer to say, ‘well, I’ve always done it with steel, now I’m going to have to do it with composites,’ and help bridge the gap to do that. What we are compelled to do and what we need to do is educate them.”
After a recent storm struck Grand Bahama, the most northern of the islands of the Bahamas, many structures were damaged, including electrical and utility poles. While wooden poles were splintered and broken with wires dangling, poles made from composites such as polyurethane were not only perfectly intact, but in some cases had outdated wooden poles leaning against them for support. According to ACMA, composite poles last 60 to 80 years.
Earlier storms like Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive of the Atlantic storms of 2012, wiped out 60,000 wooden poles, which Dobbins describes as “19th century technology that is being used in the 21st century.”
In the United States, the Innovative Bridge Research and Construction (IBRC) program, which ran from 1998 to 2004, has seen over 150 bridges made with composite materials. Composite utility poles – unlike the antiquated wooden variety which are pressure treated with harmful chemicals – do not leach environmentally destructive pollutants into the soil. In 2015, thanks to aggressive advocacy from ACMA, the congressional highway bill included language to revive the study of those bridges.
When Dobbins joined the ACMA, he brought decades of experience working for two other associations, a lobbying firm and serving in government. He says his skills supporting small business are applicable to the American Composites Manufacturers Association. Additionally, his work running the government affairs program for the American Council of Engineering Companies for eight years was important because of the ability composites have to remake infrastructure across America and worldwide.
And as composites companies continue to flourish in size and scope of work, ACMA is playing a vital role, as its technical committee forms partnerships with universities and other academic institutions helping to push innovation. These initiatives have led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), “a partnership of industry, national universities, as well as federal, state and local governments that are working together to benefit the nation’s energy and economic security.”
IACMI engages institutions and organizations that encompass education, trade, economic development and professionals to create the skilled workforce required for the future of composite industry companies small and large.
“We work hand-in-glove with them to help facilitate the work that they do,” states Dobbins. “Through them, we are leading what is currently a $1 million project – and is likely to be a $2 million project – to really facilitate the recycling of composite materials.”
One of the challenges with composites is that, unlike materials like steel or aluminum, they are harder to recycle. However, the strength and durability of composites will see a future where they are reused for other applications. As windmills are taken off-line or replaced, their enormous composite blades can be repurposed to support shifting sand dunes and prevent erosion.
Better known in the industry as CAMX, the Composites and Advanced Materials Expo was first held in 2014 in Orlando and has since been hosted in Dallas, Anaheim and back in Orlando last December, despite delays caused by Hurricane Irma. “To the amazement of the industry, we had tremendous participation,” says Dobbins of CAMX 2017. “This demonstrates the depth of the loyalty to the show and the value it provides to the industry.”
CAMX provides tremendous networking opportunities and has become the event to attend for composites-related solutions, products and advanced industry thinking. The exposition attracts guests from across the U.S. and Canada, South America, Europe and Asia. It saw about 6,500 registrants in 2017 and anticipates about 8,000 attendees this year in Dallas.
Composites are used in the aviation, automotive, military, sports and leisure, space, ballistics, energy, temporary shelters, medical – since they are inert, unlike metal – and many other sectors. In time, says Dobbins, composites will dominate infrastructure the way they already dominate the wind and automotive industries.
Composite products are seen every day, even in sculptures such as Kreysler & Associates’ famous 40-foot-tall Blue Bear peeking into the Colorado Convention Center and the massive Leo the Lion statue outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. “We are everywhere,” says Dobbins.
The future of composites is bright as the technology continues to evolve, making them even lighter and more durable.
“We enable ethanol fuel facilities, because of our corrosion-resistance. Ductwork, chemical plants and chemical facilities use composites. We are in infrastructure, including roads and bridges. We make rebar that looks like steel rebar, except that it is lighter, stronger and completely corrosion proof. We’ve taken over the marine market; we’ve taken over wind energy, and we are taking over automotive, so it’s just a matter of time. The number of areas we are expanding into – this is really going to be the composite century, like steel was for the last century.”