Since day one of the Trump administration, the White House has been talking about leveling the playing field between the U.S. and its trading partners. Steel is among the items the administration has been looking at. In an attempt to boost the domestic steel industry, the administration wants to make it more costly to import foreign steel from countries like China and Canada.
Those in favor of the tariffs say they are necessary to address cheaper global prices from competitor countries. Whether or not that’s true, one man’s level playing field is another man’s business boom. In other words, steel tariffs could actually boost the adoption of composites across a wide array of industries. The auto industry immediately comes to mind.
Composites Are Too Costly
There is no arguing that composite materials like carbon fiber are both stronger and lighter than steel and aluminum. There is little debate that carmakers could make extensive use of carbon fiber parts to build better cars. The thing that is stopping them is cost. Fabricating carbon fiber parts is labor- and energy-intensive, making the parts too costly to embrace without raising the price of the finished product.
Carmakers have consistently said that they are willing to embrace composites if the price comes down. Well, that is one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is this: they might be swayed toward greater composite adoption if the price of steel gets too high. That might very well happen if the administration’s tariffs accomplish their intended goals.
Even without tariffs in place, any significant increase in the price of steel or aluminum could change the game. At the end of the day, the goal of carmakers is to build their products as cheaply as possible without compromising quality. We already know that composites offer equal or superior quality in most automotive applications, so that is not an issue. Thus, we are back to the cost of producing carbon fiber parts as compared to their steel and aluminum alternatives.
Reducing the Cost of Composites
Auto industry experts say that it is unlikely the cost of steel and aluminum will rise significantly enough to make composites a viable alternative. Assuming that is true, what else can be done to make composites more attractive? Utah-based Rock West Composites says the answer is bringing the cost of composites down by improving manufacturing and fabricating capabilities.
The composites industry cannot rely solely on rising steel and aluminum prices to win a larger market share. But the combination of higher metal prices and lower composite prices could do the trick. With the right combination, composites could very easily become an equally attractive option.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to bring down the cost of composites drastically enough to make a difference – at least not yet. That is why the composites industry needs a little help by way of rising metal prices. A slight bump in aluminum and steel prices along with a corresponding reduction in composite prices could be the golden ticket everyone has been looking for.
In the meantime, it is in the best interests of the composites industry to continue to improve quality and selection. The more they have to offer carmakers, the more easily they make their case that composites are superior to metals and petroleum-based plastics.
The good news is that the auto industry accepts the fact that they will one day be using carbon fiber and other composites as the de facto standard. It is just a matter of how long it takes to get there.