Carbon-fiber suppliers are investing to meet higher demand.
``The industry is playing catch-up'' with the imbalance likely to exist for two or three years, said Ben Rasmussen, principal with consulting firm BMR Associates in North Plainfield, N.J. ``Demand is higher than supply'' with a particular shortage of small-tow aerospace-grade material. He said current global annual supply for polyacrylonitrile and pitch carbon fibers is about 66 million pounds.
In recent announcements, Hexcel Corp. and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd. discussed increasing production of regular-tow carbon fiber, and Zoltek Cos. Inc. said it is boosting capacity to make large-tow carbon fibers. Counts for regular tows range up to 24,000 filaments, and those for large tows to 80,000 filaments and beyond.
Major Japan-based suppliers Toray Industries Inc. and Teijin Ltd.'s Toho Tenax Co. Ltd. unit also are adding to their global regular-tow capacities.
Among its carbon-fiber initiatives, Hexcel is constructing an expandable plant near Madrid, Spain, adding a line in Salt Lake City and boosting capacity in Decatur, Ala. Hexcel projects investing $100 million, mostly in 2006-07, to increase global carbon-fiber capacity by 50 percent.
``The large increase in carbon-fiber composites usage in commercial and military aircraft is driving Hexcel to expand its manufacturing capacity,'' said David Berges, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Stamford, Conn.-based Hexcel.
Significant carbon-fiber requirements for upcoming commercial aircraft models - A380 and A350 from Airbus and 787 from Boeing Co. - eliminated the industry's excess capacity in aerospace fibers. The result: other carbon-fiber users scramble for the scarce commodity.
Mitsubishi of Tokyo is completing an expansion in Sacramento, Calif., beginning one in Toyohashi, Japan, and on the verge of outsourcing with an SGL Carbon AG unit for production in Muir of Ord, Scotland.
The California increase of 1.1 million pounds boosts annual PAN carbon-fiber capacity at the Grafil Inc. unit to 4.4 million pounds.
Mitsubishi is investing about 7 billion Japanese yen ($59.4 million) to construct a carbonization line with an annual capacity of 4.84 million pounds at the Toyohashi plant. Mitsubishi plans to begin operating the line in 2007 and increase annual capacity of carbon fibers to 11.9 million pounds from 7 million pounds.
St. Louis-based Zoltek plans during 2006 to increase its worldwide carbon-fiber production capacity to 17 million pounds from 9 million pounds. Zoltek has expanded its in-house production of precursor-quality acrylic fibers used in making carbon fibers.
``All of the new capacity ... will be used to supply contractual commitments to customers in 2006 and 2007,'' said Zsolt Rumy, Zoltek chairman and CEO. Zoltek customers operate primarily in aircraft brake, wind energy, oil field service and sporting goods applications.
Recently, Zoltek moved some talent from a Nyergesujfalu, Hungary, facility to its formerly idled Abilene, Texas, plant to address difficulties Zoltek experienced in achieving targeted production levels for the installed carbon-fiber lines in Texas. Lines at both facilities use the same process technology.
Toray, the largest global carbon-fiber supplier, is doubling its annual U.S. regular-tow production in Decatur to 7.92 million pounds in 2006 and adding 50 percent to its Japan production to 14.5 million pounds in 2007.
A unit of Taipei, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group intends during 2006 to boost annual production of regular-tow carbon-fiber to 6.6 million pounds from 4.07 million pounds.
In Rockwood, Tenn., a Toho subsidiary will convert one large-tow line to regular-tow production next year. Toho purchased the Fortafil Fibers Inc. plant from Acordis NV in 2004, said Tom Lemiere, vice president of Toho Tenax America Inc. Another subsidiary, regular-tow maker Toho Tenax GmbH in Wuppertal, Germany, is currently boosting annual capacity to 7.48 million pounds from 4.18 million pounds.
Carbon-fiber suppliers need to project an investment payback over five to seven years, Lemiere said. Disincentives in the past four years have included higher costs of acrylonitrile and crude oil with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita particularly impacting the oil part of the equation.