Why is Carbon Fiber So Expensive?
It is recognized that the use of carbon fiber is growing in more and more applications as an alternative to its aluminum, steel, and a variety of other materials because of its strength properties and lighter weight. Its versatility, high performance, and ability to be customized only adds to the seemingly infinite uses as the innovations in the material science and manufacturing techniques continue to evolve.
On the surface, the barrier to even more widespread adoption seems to be the prohibitive cost of carbon fiber when compared directly to steel and aluminum. However, there is much more nuance to simple cost when it comes to the use of carbon fiber versus other materials.
Processing and Economies of Scale
As carbon fiber is most compared to metals in terms of their relative strengths, their production methods are very different. Metals such as steel and aluminum are derived from raw ore then converted directly to an end product or provided as a bulk material to be later formed or fabricated into an end product. These techniques are time-tested, standardized processes that have evolved over hundreds and thousands of years.
Carbon fiber production, in contrast, is a relatively young process. It uses chemical and mechanical processes to manipulate the atomic makeup of organic polymers to draw long, thin 5-10 µm diameter strands. Thousands of these strands are then embedded in a stable epoxy resin matrix to create composite materials. Manufacturers use proprietary formulas and combinations of materials to produce a wide variety of composites depending on the specific strength and mechanical requirements of the specific application. The entire process is very time consuming with several steps that must be carefully controlled and quality monitored to achieve the designed performance requirements for each unique application.
From a volume perspective, carbon fiber is relatively specialized depending on the end product or performance requirements for the intended application. Custom designs are often used to specifically address the material needs for any given project. The "standard products" available from manufacturers likely started as a unique design challenge to replace a metal or other material to enhance performance but may offer a wider adoption to the market.
Metals are generally viewed as commodities with market prices determined by supply and demand. The high volume uses of steel in civil projects or shipbuilding has an obvious impact on the economies of scale. Global steel and aluminum global production are measured in millions of tons where carbon fiber is thousands of tons. The wider adoption of carbon fiber in the aerospace industry is narrowing this gap. However, metals will be produced in higher volumes in applications where the use of carbon fiber is impractical or will not benefit from its higher performance.
Return On Investment (ROI) vs Performance
The material properties and integration of metals into their end uses are well known and based on historical experience and widespread use. Their material properties, performance, and costs are generally predictable in the design of any given application. Carbon fiber is not as clearly defined.
The aerospace industry weighs the expense of using carbon fiber against the performance benefit of a longer flight range due to a significant reduction in weight in air or spacecraft. In the long run, the premium associated with carbon fiber isn’t seen as a manufacturing cost, but as a long-term benefit in terms of ROI. Industrial automation weighs the per-piece-cost against the benefit of lighter weight materials for increased production line speeds, reduced wear and load on motors and actuators, and energy consumption. Given the enormous benefits gained, the use of carbon fiber is not just a simple calculation of material costs versus the life cycle value and performance of the end product.
When designing in advanced materials such as carbon fiber into a project, engineers must determine which material properties are most important for specific applications and their impact on product cost versus performance. Contact DragonPlate to find a creative solution to bridge the gap between cost and performance.