NASHVILLE, TENN. — Prognosticators at the International Composites Exposition '98 in Nashville are forecasting a sunny future for their industry.
The growth composites realized in most market segments last year will continue through 1998, according to speakers at the show.
``Composites shipments in 1997 reached 3.42 billion pounds for a 6.1 percent increase over 1996,'' said Catherine Randazzo, executive director of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Composites Institute in New York. ``We expect 1998 to be another great year, with estimated growth to be 4.1 percent ahead of last year.''
Industry suppliers also predict a strong future.
``The composites market, as we know, is cyclical, but the long-term trend is for the market to grow faster than [gross domestic product], and faster than a lot of other industries,'' said Catherine M. Gillis, an economist with Vetrotex CertainTeed Corp. of Valley Forge, Pa.
Gillis pegged composites' growth at 4 percent per year during the next decade — or 11/2 times the growth she sees for the GDP.
Both Randazzo and Gillis picked transportation as the market with the most growth potential for fiber-reinforced plastics. Other hot markets include electrical/electronics and construction.
But a sinking marine market is the weak spot for composites.
``Last year this market dropped 4 percent,'' Randazzo said. ``Growth in this relatively mature and cyclical market has been propelled over the last several years by the spectacular popularity of personal watercraft. This new segment peaked in 1995. Demand has fallen sharply in the last two years and is expected to edge downward in the current year.''
Gillis predicts the sales of such craft will continue to fall in the near future.
``We expect sales of personal watercraft to fall another 20 percent over the next three years,'' Gillis said. ``People don't go out and buy a new boat every year. The marine segment will have a little bit of a tough time over the next few years.''
The market for large boats was good in 1997, but economists are not optimistic that the stock-market-induced ``wealth boom'' that stimulated sales of luxury items will continue.
But steady growth without booms can have its own rewards, according to Gillis, who likened the U.S. economy's 27 straight quarters of growth to the consecutive game streak of professional baseball player Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.
``There's nothing spectacular,'' she said. ``But when you add it all up, it's a hall-of-fame performance, and that's what I predict for the U.S. economy.''