In 2010, the global composites industry was estimated at EUR 46.4 billion or USD 65 billion. Over 10,000 European companies with approximately 150,000 employees are active in the European composites market. Nearly all of them are small to medium-sized. In addition, there are a few thousand sub-contractors, suppliers or service companies. Germany is a leading market for composites in Europe. Industry insiders estimate that Germany counts about 2,400 local small to medium-size companies in this industry. Over the past few years, composites have increasingly conquered several industry segments formerly dominated by metal or other materials. In Germany, the main target industries application areas are in the aerospace; automotive; general industry applications and sports/leisure industries. German firms are highly receptive to U.S. products. Strong competition, especially in the field of glass-fiber-reinforced plastics, comes from Asia, particularly from China.
High-performance composites derive their structural properties from continuous, oriented, high-strength fiber reinforcement — most commonly carbon, aramide or glass — in a matrix that allows good processing and enhances mechanical properties, such as stiffness and chemical resistance. High strength and low weight remain the winning combination that propels composite materials into new areas. They offer good damping against vibrations and a low coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE); characteristics that can be engineered for specialized applications. Composites have proven resistance to temperature extremes, corrosion and wear, especially in industrial settings. The structural properties of composite materials are derived primarily from the fiber reinforcement. In 1986, the world’s first highway bridge using composites reinforcing tendons was built in Germany. Advanced composites, initially developed for the military aerospace market, offer performance superior to that of conventional structural metals and increasingly find applications in communication satellites; aircraft; sporting goods; transportation; heavy industry and in the energy sector; in oil and gas exploration, and wind turbine construction. While glass fibers dominate the German market for reinforcing materials (GRP), the share of carbon fiber reinforced plastics composites (CFRP) is growing. According to insider information, nearly 90% of all composite materials used worldwide are still based on GRP.
In 2009, small to medium-sized manufacturers with less automated production processes or open moldprocessing, like hand lay-up and spray-up, suffered most from the economic downturn while components produced by closed-molding processes were least affected. Today, about one third of all composite components manufactured in Germany are still produced manually. According to market insiders, demand for and production of compounds made of SMC (sheet molding compound) or BMC (bulk molding compound) for the automotive and electronics/electrical equipment decreased substantially in 2009. After a slow 2009, following the global financial and economic downturn, the composites market in Germany picked up pace again at the end of 2010.
The German composites market is expected to reach pre-crisis levels (year 2008) by 2011 or 2013 at the latest. The electrical and electronics applications are showing first signs of recovery; and the automotive industry has also started to recover. Thermoplastics and semi-finished products are largely dependent on the automotive industry market. After its downturn starting three years ago, today’s automotive industry is expected to show modest growth in 2011, and then pick up pace.
According to market insiders, glass reinforced plastics (GRP) production in Europe totaled approximately 1.01 million tons getting close to the record year of 2008 (1.05 million tons). Among the western European countries, the following produced most: Spain (217kt/ kilo tons); Germany (161kt) with a strong increase of its GRP production in 2010; Italy (154kt); United Kingdom/Ireland (130kt); and France (116kt). The eastern European countries: Poland; Czech Republic; Hungary; Romania; Serbia; Croatia and Macedonia together contributed about 131kt, about the same as the United Kingdom/Ireland.