Future Forward Full Interview: Will Composites Be the Dominant Material of the 21st Century?
This page profiles innovative and impactful applied research in civil and structural engineering to spur continuing thought and dialog to create a better industry. These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.
Tom Dobbins is president and CEO for the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA), the trade association for composites manufacturers in North America and their suppliers.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before ACMA.
Dobbins: I graduated from Colgate University in beautiful upstate New York. After college, I spent seven years on Capitol Hill. I went on to revitalize a major government affairs program for a trade association representing more than 5,500 engineering firms. Shortly after, I spent four years at the IRS before joining ACMA in 2006 as President.
V1 Media: What does ACMA do, and how are you involved?
Dobbins: ACMA is the trade association for composites manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and academia in North America. Today, our membership even includes OEMs that are really interested in moving into composites. We provide education, market intelligence, advocacy, and market growth and development services to our members.
V1 Media: Can you briefly describe what composite materials are, and how they can change and help the infrastructure industry and projects?
Dobbins: Composites, at the highest level, are when you take two materials, put them together and get a better third material. The composites we represent, known as fiber-reinforced polymers (FRP), take a resin that can be made out of either epoxy, vinyl ester or polyester resin , and reinforced with a man-made fiber, such as glass or carbon, or an organic fiber like flax. Those materials tend to be lighter and stronger than most of the alternatives available, particularly metals and wood. We are involved in a whole host of applications from aerospace to automotive to infrastructure to vertical construction as well as electrical generation and distribution.
V1 Media: How can they help change and improve those industries?
Dobbins: It depends on the application. In transportation, infrastructure and wind energy applications composites make products lighter, stronger and more resilient. You couldn’t create wind energy the way we do today with any other material. In defense applications, composites absorb and disperse energy, which is terrific for ballistics protection.
V1 Media: Who is developing these composites? Where are they developing them and why?
Dobbins: The people who are doing this are everyone from small entrepreneurs to major companies. They’re doing it all over the world. They’re really driven by a higher mission: to make our world a better place to live in. They reduce carbon emissions in transportation. They reinforce structures that generate wind and solar power. They’re a backbone for clean energy.
Another area that we haven’t talked about is prosthetics. For our wounded warriors and others, we make life better for them. Composites are also used in a lot of recreational products, such as sporting goods equipment and marine products. Besides being a great thing for businesses and for manufactured goods, they also make our lives fun. The lion outside the MGM Grand Hotel is one of the largest fiberglass statues in the world. Then there’s the Blue Bear in Denver, outside the Convention Center, which is made out of fiberglass composites.
V1 Media: Focusing on infrastructure, how can composites help America and other countries build smarter?
Dobbins: It can help them build smarter in a number of different ways. For example, it can dramatically shorten the span of time it takes to re-deck a bridge from weeks to days. It can make our infrastructure more resilient.
The major cause of problems with our infrastructure, particularly transportation infrastructure, is that the foundation is concrete reinforced with steel rebar. Concrete is porous. In any environment, particularly a high-salinity environment, steel rusts and corrodes. When it rusts, it expands. When it expands, it pops the concrete. That leads to a lot of our potholes and other problems with our infrastructure. By replacing steel reinforcements with corrosion-proof composite materials that are lighter and stronger than steel, we can have an infrastructure that lasts longer and is more resilient. With composite utility poles, we have an infrastructure that’s not rotting or leaching toxins into the environment.
V1 Media: How do composites compare to other materials in terms of cost?
Dobbins: It depends on the application. It’s comparable in initial cost. In lifecycle cost, it’s dramatically lower.
V1 Media: Do you have any figures or numbers in terms of how much lower it is over the lifecycle?
Dobbins: We’re in the process of getting that data, which has been developed by the Federal Highway Administration. It’s an internal document, and we’re in the process of getting that released.
V1 Media: Who is typically using composites now? Where are the opportunities for the most growth?
Dobbins: Composites are widely used, but the possibilities for growth are huge .One of the areas of frustration for the industry is when Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, it wiped out 60,000 utility poles, which is a 19th-century technology; we went back and put in exactly the same technology. We have a picture of the Grand Bahamas with some wooden utility poles that are broken, and two utility poles that are standing. The two utility poles standing are composite utility poles.
What’s even more disturbing to me, as a taxpayer, is that the wooden utility poles have been broken four times and had to be reinstalled over the time that the composite utility pole was in place. Again, lifecycle costs of the composite utility poles are significantly less, particularly in areas prone to storms and other destruction.
In transportation structures, there is a lot of possible growth. Tens of thousands of bridges get built or replaced every year; a tiny fraction of those are made out of composites. The other growth areas that we see are automotive. There are obviously many components in automotive that are using composites, but not consistently. We see tremendous opportunity in automotive.
We see the ability to continue to grow aerospace. We’re in pretty good shape in defense, but we see huge potential for growth in commercial aviation. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner 777 aircraft are made primarily with composites. Boeing’s biggest competitor, Airbus, also produces a number of composite-intensive aircraft, including the A380, A330 and A350 XWB. There’s still a lot of room to grow.
V1 Media: What do you think is the future of composites in infrastructure? Both from the composites themselves and how they’re used.
Dobbins: I think that if steel was the dominant material in the 20th century, composites will be the dominant material going forward in the 21st century. The key is educating architects and engineers on the benefits of composites, giving them the tools to design with composites. We also need to educate asset owners so they demand the advantages composites give them in terms of lifecycle costs of the assets they’re building.
That’s critical because, right now, a vast majority of design professionals were trained in how to use steel. Even now, today’s engineering curriculum is still rooted in 20th century technology. The key is to get engineers more comfortable designing with composites.
V1 Media: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Dobbins: ACMA has a very aggressive program of outreach to asset owners and designers. For example, in March, we hosted a technology day with Ford in which we had about 35 to 40 ACMA member companies in Ford’s research and development facility in Dearborn, Michigan. We held an exclusive tour for their senior leadership to view composite products. About 400 to 500 engineers attended the event.
Before the event ended, Ford invited us to come back at a later date.
Then we’re also going to do the same in aerospace. We’re going to do an event with GE Aviation along with Boeing, Tesla and SpaceX. We’re doing a lot of outreach. We’ll have a pavilion at the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE International) this spring, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and at the International Bridge Conference, which we’ve been doing for 15 or 20 years with presentations.
We have a very strong program of outreach to educate asset owners, working with the Florida DOT. We’ve done webinars for the Federal Highway Administration on the benefits of composites. That is a major thrust for ACMA. We’re working with Capitol Hill on a couple of legislative initiatives. There will also likely be legislation introduced to generate standards for composites in infrastructure through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Check out www.discovercomposites.com for more information.