Better regulated composites could bring billions to UK

Composite materials important for the energy generation industry

Andy Pye looks at a report from the University of Southampton calling for an end to sector specific composite material usage constraints.

In 2013, the global market for composite products was US$68 billion, which is now predicted to grow to US$105bn by 2030 The UK’s share of this market is around 3% and is expected to grow to £12bn or more in the same period.

But this figure could be as high as £16bn if the sectors that have not previously embraced the use of composites were to experience the same rate of growth as the aerospace sector, where the use of composite materials has increased by 50% over the last three decades.

According to the position paper ‘Modernising composite materials regulations’, the introduction of effective regulation in the use of composites in these, and other new sectors, could bring more than £4bn worth of benefit to the UK by the year 2030.

The study was carried out by a multidisciplinary team from Southampton’s Faculties of Engineering and the Environment, and Business, Law and Art (Institute of Maritime Law), supported by the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute and the University’s department for Research and Innovation Services (RIS).

While the UK is a leading player in the research and development of composites, says the study, it is not the most agile in bringing these new products to market. Only the Aerospace and Wind Energy industries have fully harnessed the advantages: in aerospace, 52% by weight of the latest generation of aircraft are now composed of composite materials.

The automobile industry is now starting to embrace composites. But the other more traditional industries, like marine, rail, oil & gas, construction and (to a lesser extent) defence, are still wedded to more conventional materials.

One of the major inhibitors to the uptake of composites in new sectors is that regulations, codes and standards are often inappropriate for composites. This is because they are both explicitly and implicitly based on named materials, such as steel, and do not permit consideration of composites applications despite the strengths and benefits of the materials in many cases.

“Advanced polymer composite materials have a huge potential to shape the modern world,” said Professor Ole Thybo Thomsen, a world leading expert on composite structures who is Head of the Infrastructure Research Group at Southampton and co-author of the position paper. “The use of composites in aerospace and automobile design is now the norm, but they have much broader potential for use in other sectors such as in building and bridge construction, railway and rail infrastructure, as well as marine and offshore. In aerospace alone, 52% by weight of the latest generation of aircraft are now composed of composite materials.”

“In the UK there is currently very limited coordination and centralisation of the codes and standards data associated with new composite materials,” said Professor Simon Quinn, Director of the University’s Research Institute for Industry (RiFi) and the lead researcher of the paper. “There is neither a coherent development of certified testing facilities, nor a formal process for different sectors to share information and best practice. These factors have reduced productivity, discouraged research and development and innovation, and significantly increased the time to market for new composite products.”

“Industry and government have not shared information,” Quinn adds. “In the UK there are four government departments dealing with material regulation and the minister with overall responsibility for Health and Safety (the Minister for the Disabled) has neither the mandate nor the resources to harmonise this system. There are also seven agencies involved in regulation, alongside a lack of Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP), creating a labyrinth of assurance without the guarantee of certification at the end. This is a considerable disincentive to those companies wanting to innovate, and a significant barrier to new companies entering the markets.”

The findings in the report from consulting the composites industry and researching in depth the regulations in each industrial sector show that the major constraint inhibiting the growth/use of composite material in these industries is the regulation of new materials. This confirms the barrier to the uptake of composite materials in new sectors that insufficient regulations present.

There are two ways to obtain approval to introduce composite materials into engineering design. These are:

* by proving ‘equivalence’ to traditional engineering materials, such as steel,
* by proving that the materials can perform to the required standards in operational conditions – ‘performance’.

The difficulty in proving ‘equivalence’ is that, often, the actual performance requirements have developed over many years and can be loosely or poorly defined. As a result, approval is often subjective, rather than objectively based on the assessment of performance.

However, the more objective proof of ‘performance’ relies heavily on having codified standards and guidelines to underpin the regulations. Such standards and guidelines have not yet been developed in many sectors. Consequently the regulators are forced to resort to the less objective ‘equivalence’ -based processes. This makes it difficult to move forward with new innovative engineering designs that incorporate new materials.

The Aerospace industry has overcome this difficulty. They have introduced ‘performance’-based regulation supported by an organisation dedicated to providing the codified standards and guidelines necessary for approval. Furthermore, by making this information available in an open source database they have encouraged large companies to work together to develop new materials and drive down material and manufacturing costs.

Generally however, there is in the UK currently very limited coordination and centralisation of the codes and standards data associated with new composite materials. There is neither a coherent development of certified testing facilities, nor a formal process for different sectors to share information and best practice. These factors have reduced productivity, discouraged research and development and innovation, and significantly increased the time to market for new composite products.

Moreover, industry and government have not shared information. In the UK, there are four government departments dealing with material regulation and the minister with overall responsibility for Health and Safety (the Minister for the Disabled) has neither the mandate nor the resources to harmonise this system. There are also seven agencies involved in regulation.

A prerequisite is to create a coordinated focal point for composites regulation for the benefit of the ‘traditional’ sectors, taking into account differing needs of each sector, which would have to remain under the purview of the sector regulators who ideally, would be integrated into the process. This shared access to the same supporting science and associated codes and standards would improve productivity, and significantly reduce the time to market.

It is also proposed that one government department should have overall responsibility for regulation, with representation in other departments. The lead department would oversee material regulatory policy and management of the centre, would have the responsibility to develop codes and standards, and would authorise both UK and nominated overseas test centres.

This approach will increase the value, utility and sustainability of the UK’s composites research and by speeding up the ‘route to market’, allowing the UK to both achieve and maximise its predicted market share and prevent the more agile manufacturing nations using UK research to gain a first-mover competitive advantage.

The report authors note that just prior to publication of this position paper, the UK Industrial Strategy Green Paper was unveiled. They believe that the regulatory reforms that are proposed here would contribute significantly to the delivery of the Industrial Strategy.

Andy Pye

Andy Pye

Andy Pye is a graduate of Cambridge University and has had a high profile career in the technical press as well as being a pioneer in web publishing.
Andy Pye

Latest posts by Andy Pye (see all)

About Andy Pye

Andy Pye is a graduate of Cambridge University and has had a high profile career in the technical press as well as being a pioneer in web publishing.

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