There is a crisis in the aerospace sector, a crisis that isn’t getting much attention in the news. It is a crisis that could lead to the permanent downsizing of many companies whose bread-and-butter is manufacturing components for aerospace giants like Airbus and Boeing. Some of those companies will undoubtedly be composites manufacturers.
The big problem for many of these companies is that their aerospace buyers are not buying as many parts. Boeing, Airbus, and others are just not manufacturing the same number of aircraft they used to manufacture. Not only that, they are slashing plans for future manufacturing.
Boeing and Airbus reducing output certainly affects their own plants and employees. But it also affects the many tertiary companies whose lifeblood is aerospace. Without buyers to sell to, they have to reduce their own production. And if a Bloomberg report from mid-May is accurate, some of these tertiary companies will be downsizing permanently.
Closing Plants, Cutting Jobs
One such company cited by Bloomberg is Belgium’s Solvay. The company has already closed plants in England and the U.S. Now they plan on additional cuts in their composites division, cuts that will lead to the loss of nearly 600 jobs. Solvay is not expecting those jobs to return.
So what’s the problem? The company’s two biggest aerospace customers are Boeing and Airbus. Boeing cut production of the 737 Max in 2019 after the plane was grounded due to a software issue. Since the grounding, quite a few of Boeing’s customers have dropped their orders for the plane.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the tourism industry to a near standstill. With few people flying, neither Boeing nor Airbus have enough orders to keep production at maximum. Airlines are canceling or delaying their orders, leaving the two aerospace giants with fewer orders to fill.
All of this works its way down the line to companies like Solvay. Airlines are not buying planes so plane makers are not building the planes. The companies that supply Boeing and Airbus with parts and materials have no one to buy from them either.
Testing New Markets
No one knows how long aerospace will be in a rut. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Boeing and Airbus never return to pre-crisis production levels. Let us assume that global travel diminishes enough to prevent airlines from upgrading aircraft as quickly as planned. Where does that leave the composites industry?
According to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites, the aerospace industry’s future will depend on testing new markets. Where the window of opportunity might be closing on aerospace, there appears to be a new window of opportunity in the automotive sector. It is not hard to imagine car companies becoming the largest consumers of glass and carbon fiber composites as electric vehicles replace those with internal combustion engines.
Auto makers have long resisted putting too much stock in composite materials because of their higher costs. But technologies are bringing down the price of composites with each passing quarter. Moreover, composites engineers are on the verge of creating some highly efficient and cost-effective manufacturing processes that could help carmakers slowly wean themselves off aluminum while keeping retail prices in check.
An Evolving Industry
Rock West Composites says their industry is an evolving one. Like so many other industries, major players come and go. Such is the nature of business. Even if aerospace permanently downsizes, there will be other industries ready to come in and pick up the slack. It is up to the composites sector to find those new markets and get those new customers on board.