INDUSTRIAL

Overview

By industrial, we mean machinery, or equipment and structures used by industry, as contrasted with consumer goods, which are not auto, aircraft, marine construction, or some other familiar end-use category. This is the most fragmented market that we studied.

The literature and those we interviewed show evidence of selective use in Japan, as in the US, of pultruded or filament-wound rollers for printing and packaging, in the textile industry, and in high-speed plastic boat manufacturing. That is, selective use where the combination of do-ability, resistance to chemicals, the need for light weight -- a whole range or combination of performance requirements -- made these kinds of expensive parts cost-efficient. There is no discernible competitive advantage for the U.S. or Japan in either the research, or the production, or the use of this type of component -- again, not speaking of glass-reinforced materials here, but of carbon fiber and aramid units in an engineered resin.

In other industrial products, for example in robot arms, certainly there is more widespread use of advanced composites as a component in that kind of equipment simply because the Japanese have a far bigger robot industry. In machine tool components, another usage, we found the same kind of uses made very selectively for advanced composites.

On the other hand, in the area of thermoplastics reinforced with glass fiber, typically injection molded, these are in widespread use in North America because we have far more applications, in business equipment, appliances, a limited number of commercial consumer goods. We did not see as much of that in Japan although the technology is no mystery, and again, if there were markets of opportunity we would expect the evaluation of technology in this to be about the same.

A large characteristic in this industrial area is the fact that we felt we didn't have much access to what truly may be going on, because this type of product isn't highly promotable. It doesn't have great surface-finish characteristics, something useful in a press release or an annual report, and -- just as here -- we felt our hosts discerned competitive advantage with their competitors in Japan. And they felt perhaps some reluctance, just as we would, to publicize a use of advanced composites in the internals of a machine or in some production activity that was going to create a market for someone else. One other application is of considerable interest in North America -- composite tanks for liquid natural gas for alternative fuel vehicles. There has been a setback in the standards being set for certain uses by DOT that virtually amounts to a materials specification adverse to composites, in the market governed by that standard. If that's the case, there's a mirror-image situation in Japan. We found that the pressure vessel manufacturers -- those who make racked bottles for fire service, mountain climbing and so on -- who invested three years ago in the development of these types of tanks for land transportation equipment have slowed down and discovered that there are some glitches, at least for the time being, in the adaptation of advanced composites for that market.

In summary, automotive and industrial applications in Japan were much more difficult to uncover than was the case for aerospace applications. The JTEC panel concluded that there is a rough parity between Japan and the United States in this area.


Published: April 1994; WTEC Hyper-Librarian