by NICOLA CATENARO
PortaleCompositi.it and CompositesPortal.com continue to investigate “The future of composites”. Here it is the interview with Livio Galassi, who is leading the Composite Development for Racing Prototypes at Porsche Motorsport. His main focus in the last years was on the 3 times Le Mans Winner Porsche 919 Hybrid. Between his previous positions is worth to mention his role as Composite Manager at Peugeot Sport and as Composite Design Engineer and Structure Analyst into the Composite Manufacture Industry. He graduated in Mechanical Engineering with honors at University of Bologna and specialized in Internal Combustion Engines.
How do you see the future of composites in the world market? Are there growth prospects and in which sectors?
«Looking at actual developments in different industries, it is reasonable to expect a further increase in the use of carbon fiber reinforced plastics in the next five years. This expansion could result from both growth in the demand of existing products, like Lufthansa announcing to revamp their fleet by dropping some A380 in favour of modern A350/787, and the expansion into new markets. Competent sources like “Overview of the Global Composite Market” edited by JEC seem to confirm my opinion above by forecasting a growth of 5% up to 2021 for the composite market. In which sector do I expect major growth? The easiest answer would be Aerospace, Military & Defense, Renewable Energies generation (Wind Turbines), Sport & Leisure. Easy because in these sectors the use of composite materials is already well established. A further expansion could come from Civil Engineering. It is not by chance that I put automotive as last in this list, despite being the business I am actually involved in. Reason being that automotive has a very volatile market, influenced by laws and strategies of multiple countries and by local and global economic trends. An expansion beyond hypercar/supercar application could happen, but there are still some technical and financial hurdles to overcome to make it happen. Obviously I am talking about primary structures of cars, not trims and accessories».
How important will composite materials be in the development projects of the electric car?
«First of all we should define which category of composite materials we are addressing in this discussion. In the automotive industry, reinforced plastics for injection molding (like PA66) are already widely used. But if we refer to continuous fiber reinforced plastics, which offer maximum level of performance for primary vehicle structures, there are still some hard points which need to be addressed, as I mentioned before. Let’s leave alone topics like megatrends, stability of markets and laws and focus on purely technical and cost/benefit considerations. We need to bear in mind that automotive is a unique business where high tech objects are produced in high volume and at high rate, but still need to be sold at affordable price for private persons. It is a capital intensive business which operates in a volatile market and whose operating margins are often lower than other businesses. The edge between profit and loss is sometimes extremely thin, and you have to run the business carefully. None of the sectors I mentioned before have these characteristics, automotive has its own rules. To build up a car you will need complex components produced at high rate and low cost. This period sums up the very hurdles to overcome. It is indeed still a real challenge to produce complex continuous fiber reinforced composite components fully automatic. Moreover the cost of raw material and semi finished goods is normally higher than the one of metal alloys currently in use. A further point which deserves consideration is sustainable engineering and End if Life Management. Last but not least fixing the car after a small accident could require highly skilled workers, if you do not want to replace components tout-court».
Carbon fiber composites are the key product of many present and future projects in the racing sector, starting with Porsche. Do you see an alternative to them?
«For some structural components there are not really alternatives if the target is to maximize performance indices such as specific stiffness and strength. There are some niche applications where additive manufacturing of reinforced plastics and high end metal alloys could be competitive. For body panels the use of natural fibers like flax could make sense as well. Porsche Motorsport is using natural fibers reinforced composites for Doors and Rear Wings on the GT4 ClubSport. Beside that we are following with interest the development of bio/green epoxy resin systems, which are blends between standard epoxy and molecular structures coming from vegetables».
The high cost still makes the use of composites restricted to market niches. Is it possible to reverse this trend in your opinion?
«A general answer to this question is barely possible. If we stay within the group of continuous fiber reinforced plastics I think the cost of semi finished goods will hardly get competitive with metal alloys, mainly because of the complexity of their production process. Moreover component production based on these semi finished goods is still more complex and expensive than for standard materials. Neverthless especially on the latter point, an effort towards designing structures more oriented to composite production and further automation of the production itself could lead to an increase of their use. Beside that we should bring the analysis beyond the bare costs for raw materials and their transformation. To evaluate thoroughly the potential advantage of using composite, we need to look at the complete life cycle of the target product, including maintenance, operational and scrapping costs. If for example we focus on transportation, an increase of fuel cost could move the break even point towards a more expensive machine which operates at higher efficiency, at a point which investing in composite material will increase profitability (actually happening in flight transportation). On automotive side legislation for environmental protection could push car manufacturers to build lighter cars, thus giving composite a further boost».
What role will Europe have in the growth of the global composites market?
«If I am not mistaking Europe represents more than one third of the global carbon composite market, despite only a small percentage of global carbon fiber production is happening there. Europe is playing already today at the far front, nevertheless there is still margin to progress through public and private investments in R&D. On the technical side there is still room to improve performance of the materials (mechanical, electric and thermal), easiness to work with them, environmental impact and reuse/recycling».
Would you still recommend to young engineer to specialize in the composite sector as you did?
«Despite nowadays disciplines like Electronics and Information Technology could look more relevant to actual industrial trends and product development strategies than classic disciplines like Mechanics, there is an important point to be considered. Looking around us at different products of technology, we will suddenly realize that most of them are built around some sort of frame/structure. For several reasons the demand for better performance on these structures will constantly increase in future. I am sure composite will play a major role in this process, so my answer to this question is definitively yes».
25 March 2019