SAN DIEGO - Many golfers think a graphite golf shaft improves their chances of hitting a ball farther. Materials suppliers like the result: a market with annual growth of more than 20 percent. Materials suppliers sell about $40 million per year in carbon fiber prepreg and another $5 million in boron, Kevlar and ceramic prepreg for golf shafts worldwide, according to industry analyst Benjamin Rasmussen of BMR Associates, based in Watchung, N.J.
The market's annual growth of more than 20 percent reflects numerous material and process improvements; consumers' interest in oversized club heads and high-tech shafts; exposure of the shafts at professional golf tournaments; and the marketing of club makers such as Callaway, Cobra and Taylor Made.
The material changes made in golf have been few. Shafts were made from wood until 1924, when the U.S. Golf Association legalized the use of steel. The Black & Decker unit, True Temper Division,dominates the world's five steel-shaft makers, making up to 120,000 daily.
Shakespeare Co. introduced a fiberglass shaft in the early 1950s and followed with the first graphite shafts in the mid-1960s. Aldila Inc. made the graphite shaft take off in its first wave of popularity in the early 1970s. Manufacturing improvements and greater customer accep-tance led in the late 1980s to graphite challenging steel as the material of choice for golf shafts. Aldila made about 4.4 million shafts last year.
Shaft makers wrap pieces of prepreg material, usually consisting of carbon fiber and epoxy, around a removable mandrel and vary the angles for strength. An oven or autoclave cures the material. Manufacturers use prepreg tape most often but also use prepreg broadgoods and filament winding.
Callaway Golf Co., Cobra Golf Inc. and Taylor Made Golf Co. are based in Carlsbad, Calif., and rely heavily on nearby shaft manufacturers including Aldila, Horizons Sports Technologies Inc., Unifiber Corp. and a dozen others. Callaway has six shaft suppliers but plans to bring some production in-house. Cobra owns its sole shaft supplier.
In an intense cost-cutting environment, ICI Fiberite, Hexcel Corp., Newport Adhesives and Composites Inc., Toray Composites (America) Inc. and others bid vigorously to supply prepreg, since October, face competition from Aldila's in-house prepreg production.
Nonprofitability and overcapacity are key issues facing prepreg suppliers dealing with the aerospace decline and ``ending up with golf shafts and sporting goods as an alternate home for that capacity,'' said Kris Ralph, market manager for ICI Fiberite of Laguna Hills, Calif.
``HST [Horizons Sports' trade name] has captured a significant amount of business from the majors,'' Ralph said.
HST has outgrown existing facilities and will move in a few months to a 100,000-square-foot plant. Gary Beck, executive vice president, said HST's 1995 sales will triple or quadruple those of 1994. HST employed 250 as of Dec. 31 and now has 500 on the payroll. HST supplies shafts to Callaway and Taylor Made.
Tod Boretto, vice president of engineering and technical sales, said HST's round-the-clock operation makes about 12,000 parts daily and expects this year to consume about 500,000 pounds. HST's 1996 prepreg forecast: 1.1 million pounds.
Operations of Cobra subsidiary West Coast Composites include autoclave manufacturing, robotic testing equipment and a pilot production line that tests new club designs.
Newport and ICI Fiberite supply prepreg to West Coast Composites, with Hercules Inc. providing about 95 percent of the standard-modulus carbon fiber, said Rich Bayer, plant manager. Graphite-shafted clubs accounted for 77 percent of Cobra's 1994 gross sales from golf clubs.
Toray has experienced difficulty in developing market share. HST's Boretto said Toray insists on supplying 1-meter-wide prepreg and wants shaft makers to change their approach to comply with the Japanese-owned firm's idea of doing business.
Fujikura, Japan's leading graphite shaft maker, has estab-lished a Vista, Calif., facility to supply Taylor Made's needs and to establish a base to gain other business in the United States.
In an unusually integrated arrangement, Mitsubishi Rayon produces the carbon fiber and prepreg raw materials and then makes the shaft in Japan for Tommy Armour Golf Co. of Morton Grove, Ill.
Meanwhile, in an aerospace offshoot, Thiokol Corp. markets a solvent-free prepreg that can be stored at ambient temperatures for at least one year. Two of the largest firms use it to make filament-wound shafts.
Bryte Technologies Inc. of San Jose, Calif., recognizes the interest in curing at low temperatures and has a 250§ F curing system for quick prototype tooling and possible golf-shaft applications.
``People think they need room-temperature prepregs, but they don't develop toughness,'' said Guy Riddle, vice president and director of research and development for the firm.
Makers of graphite golf shafts use prepreg sheet wrapping and some filament winding for premium items and less-expensive foreign sourcing for discount prod-ucts, said Tom Wishon, chief engineer and club designer of Golfsmith International Inc.
``The trend of using a very light shaft allows the golfer to increase swing velocity and increase head mass, both of which are distance-increasing factors,'' he said. ``We look around for better fiber-to-resin ratios, new materials that lighten the shaft without decreasing torsional or flexural stiffness, and durability.''
Golfsmith, in Austin, Texas, employs 450 and has sales of $80 million in club-making parts.
Use of boron remains an issue. For a decade, manufacturers have placed strands of high-tensile-strength boron inside graphite shafts to reinforce the tip near the club head. Now, a few manufacturers are experimenting with high-modulus graphite.
Separately, Graffalloy Shaft Co. and Fenwick Shaft Co. propose use of lower modulus, tough fibers to prevent breakage.
``Carbon fiber prepregs have improved to the point where boron is not necessary to strengthen the shafts,'' said Peter Piotrowski, Aldila vice president.
Textron Inc. supplies boron for ultra-lightweight shafts.
``Boron still provides the highest flexural strength and modulus when compared to any other prepreg material such as high-modulus graphite,'' said Michael Buck, sports technology director for the Textron Specialty Materials Division in Lowell, Mass.
Brunswick Golf in Torrington, Conn., produces shafts using fiber-braiding/resin transfer molding and wet-filament winding.
``The computer-controlled interlocking dry braid and RTM process offers a unique fiber orientation of seamless construction with multiple layers of true axial reinforcement,'' said John Navan, director of composites design and manufacturing. ``The braid is injected with epoxy resin in matched metal molds using elevated temperature and pressure.''
Brunswick is the largest supplier of wet-filament wound shafts. In the computer-controlled process, fiber is applied wet with resin in multiple passes over a mandrel. Some club makers are testing a potential high-end product that eliminates the mandrel.
Using gas injection, Tamworth Plastics Ltd. of Tamworth, England, molds a nylon core and applies carbon-fiber prepreg and some boron. Production may begin next year.
Aldila's Roy Tiley watches as carbon fiber is fed between rolls of resin-coated release paper used to make prepreg. The golf club maker began prepreg production last year.