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Airbus, Dreamliner Delays Slow Carbon Fiber Expansion

Airbus, Dreamliner Delays Slow Carbon Fiber Expansion

A massive expansion in global carbon-fiber capacity that began two years ago is slowing down just a bit due to economic weakness and delays in major aircraft programs, such Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

Mitsubishi Rayon Co. announced it will postpone for approximately one year the start of production at its new carbon fiber plant in the Otake Production Center in Japan.

Construction work was halted.

A huge buildup in carbon-fiber capacity began in 2007 when it became apparent that Boeing and Airbus planned to use carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composites as a major structural material in new commercial aircraft. Meanwhile, demand also rose from other applications, ranging from wind turbine blades to pressure vessels. 

The Dreamliner became the fastest selling wide-body airliner in history with close to 600 orders. The plane was originally scheduled to enter into service in May 2008, but is currently scheduled to enter into service in Q1 2010. Original delays were caused by shortages of fasteners and other production-related issues. More recently, orders slowed due to weakness in the global economy.

"Due to the recent worldwide economic downturn, demand for carbon fiber in several market sectors is expected to remain stagnant and the development of new applications are being delayed," says Hiroyuki Kinoshita, president of Grafil, Inc., a 100-percent-owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Rayon.

Here's a look at the planned expansions in carbon fiber:

Toray Industries. The biggest global supplier of carbon fiber, and the prime carbon-fiber supplier to Boeing, Toray will reach a capacity of 42 million lbs of carbon fiber this year, up from 21 million lbs in 2005. Toray will open this July an additional carbonization plant for special thin fibers with a production capacity of 2.2 million lbs in Ehime, Japan. The thin fibers are ideal for injection molding of components for bicycles, automotive parts, industrial robots and secondary structural elements for aircraft, such as rotor blades, flaps and spoilers. Toray plans to boost its production capacity to 55 million lbs by 2010. In the next expansion phase, which could be delayed by the economy, Toray will produce a medium-elasticity, high-strength carbon fiber for primary structural elements of aircraft. One of the applications will be the tail of the first Japanese-made small passenger jetliner under development by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

The A350 will be the first Airbus with fuselage and wing structures made primarily of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. The aircraft is scheduled to enter into service in 2013, at least two years behind schedule.

TAGS: Aerospace
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