Composites Cluster transforms ideas into innovations
WILL COMPOSITES be Atlantic Canada’s next economic powerhouse? Jean-Phillippe Brideau sure thinks so.
He’s the general manager of NB Composites Cluster Group Inc., an industry-led, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the development of a vibrant, state-of-theart manufacturing sector in New Brunswick—with an eye toward expansion across the Atlantic region.
As one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the world, with the global market increasing at a rate of over 35% annually, composites offer significant opportunities for Atlantic Canadian companies.
Composites (the shortened form of composition materials), is a broad term used to describe the combining of two or more constituent materials, with different physical or chemical properties, to develop products for a broad spectrum of end-user applications.
Composites are a preferred, if not superior alternative to traditional raw materials, such as wood and metal. They are stronger, lighter and more durable, making their high-performance properties extremely attractive to cost-and-quality-conscious customers. These advanced materials include resin, gelcoat, epoxy, silicone, urethane, fiberglass, glass and carbon fibres — among others.
DIVERSE AND DYNAMIC INDUSTRY
The diverse and dynamic nature of the industry is reflected in the companies represented on Composites Cluster’s board. President Jacques Dugas, for example, heads The Tank Shop, which specializes in the manufacture of tank and pressure vessels and multiple storage systems while past president, Bernard Morin, is CEO of Thermopak, a specialist in the manufacture of plastic thermoformed trays for food production. Theirs are among over 50 companies in New Brunswick alone that are directly and indirectly engaged in the production and distribution of composite technologies.
Brideau believes this highly specialized and rapidly evolving industry holds “huge” multi-billion-dollar potential to generate revenue and create jobs for the Atlantic region. “We are on the verge of a boom,” he says.
NB Composites Cluster Group collaborates with several post-secondary institutions in Atlantic Canada to provide the training and technical assistance needed to transform members’ ideas into innovations. Among them is the University of New Brunswick’s Marine Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence. Brideau is looking to this partnership to “position (the cluster) as a leader in 3D printing.”
The Composites Cluster has also formed strong alliances with CCNB and NBCC, the Université de Moncton, UNB and Dalhousie University to provide members with access to their research facilities and R&D expertise. The goal is to accelerate the development process, from prototype to market-ready product.
“They help companies develop products from the ground up, to learn new technologies, learn new ways of manufacturing, learn new ways of working with composites and preparing them to become ISO certified. All these things are things that small companies would not be able to do by themselves,” Brideau says.
NETWORK OF EXPERTISE
In building a solid network of expertise to facilitate the development of the composites sector in Atlantic Canada, Brideau reached out to Dr. Gobinda Saha, Associate Professor and Director of the Nanocomposites and Mechanics Lab in the University of New Brunswick’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in the fall of 2015. It has proved to be a mutually beneficial partnership.
Dr. Saha holds a post-doctorate degree in mechanical engineering, specializing in composite materials, from Dalhousie University, and collaborated with the former Lunenburg, Nova Scotia-based Composites Atlantic (now Stelia-North America) in the testing of advanced composites structures before joining the Mechanical Engineering faculty at UNB.
“My goal is to bring novel technology that can provide solutions to composites manufacturing for the local industry. And so far it has been very successful.” Indeed, Dr. Saha’s research into fiber-reinforced polymer-based composites, fabricated by pultrusion methodology, has attracted more than $300,000 in government and private investments.
The poltrusion technique is one of the few technologies around that can be used in mass production. “That is why my interest is to upgrade and to bring it (the technology) to small and medium-sized companies.” Dr. Saha is currently working with a New Brunswick firm to “bring the technology forward and to employ local talents in the composite industry.”
The investments of the public and private sectors in his work—evenly split between the two—are a testament to the confidence they have in the industry’s growth potential. “There is a tremendous future connecting composite materials with Atlantic Canadian businesses. We have the technology. We have the expertise. And we are working with local businesses.”
However, there is one barrier to growth and that is resistance to change. “We have to change the mindset to appreciate and be comfortable adopting new technology.”
Dr. Saha notes that “over 80% of the materials we handle today are made of composites” and increasing all the time due to their highly advantageous properties. “You can actually implant or grow novel properties based on the design of the materials.” For example, by replacing traditional steel-based materials or reinforcements with composite-based materials, structures are less prone to corrosion—a definite advantage in regions with cold, snowy winters like Atlantic Canada.
In Brideau’s opinion, composites are set to revolutionize manufacturing of all types due to advances in technology that are improving production methods and increasing the durability and versatility of the materials. “Every day new products are hitting the market.”
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Brideau’s message to anyone who wants to join this manufacturing revolution is: “We’re open for business. We’re working together. We’re creating synergies between businesses. We want to do something with the colleges and we’re ready to work with whoever has a great idea or potential.”
As one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the world, composites offer significant opportunities for Atlantic Canadian companies. The current market value of Atlantic Canada’s composites sector is $7.7 billion and growing. This includes the manufacture of composites for the region’s aerospace, marine, construction and infrastructure industries.
His confidence is supported by the data analytics of research firms like MarketsandMarkets, which predicts the composites market will expand from $72.58 billion USD in 2016 to $115.43 billion by 2022, at a compound annual growth rate of 8.13% between 2017 and 2022. Another firm, Grand View Research, Inc., expects the composites market will reach a further $130.84 billion USD by 2024.
Their projections are based largely on increased demand for composites in a number of key industries like aerospace, transportation, construction and marine, owing to the high strength and reduced weight offered by composites and the confidence of OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in composites technologies.
The latest Airbus aircraft, A356XWB, illustrates the major shift toward composites in manufacturing. Composite materials make up 53% of the aircraft, compared to old models where only 2-5% composites were used. The main reasons for this shift are the reduction in the weight of the aircraft and the high resistance offered by composites to corrosion. In addition the maintenance costs of aircraft are lower in comparison to aircraft comprised of traditional materials.
For the same reasons, these next-generation materials continue to gain traction in other industries. Consider that approximately 70% of all boats are fashioned from composite materials. Composites make them more durable, easier to care for and are less likely to rot, rust or corrode. Composites are also used to produce seven of the top 10 sports and recreation products, with low-cost carbon fibre being the predominant material in golf shafts, fishing rods and tennis rackets.
High-performance glass fibers dominate the global composites market, accounting for over 90% of the reinforcements used in the manufacturing of composites around the world, again owing to their weather-resistant, surface texture varieties and lightweight properties.
The Composites Cluster is hoping to capitalize on this momentum by increasing the expertise, productivity, and competitiveness of its membership. To build that capacity, the organization offers a wide variety of services to its members. Chief among them is providing professional and financial assistance through all stages of the product development process.
Composites manufacturing is already big business in Atlantic Canada. In fact, its total current market value is $7.7 billion, according to Dr. Saha, when the value of composites used in the manufacture of products for the region’s aerospace, marine, construction and infrastructure industries are combined.
Despite the scope and size of the Atlantic region’s composites sector, there is still plenty of work to do to build its public profile. “Local companies are just not aware of this data,” acknowledges Dr. Saha, “so it’s our job to connect. There’s a lot of awareness-raising to do—and a lot of opportunity.”
This is particularly true of fibre-reinforced polymerbased composites, in his opinion. “When integrated with wood based bio-particulates (biochar), they have already shown novel properties in the host composite structures.”
“This type of manufacturing draws on Atlantic Canada’s rich abundance of natural resources, by using wood fibres from the forest to produce environmentally friendly bio-based composites.”
“These composites are green materials (biocomposites) complemented with high flexural strength properties that are important in aerospace and defence, impact, and large-scale infrastructure applications.”
His research also focusses on building novel surface characteristics on the bio-composites by developing cermet-based thin films using high pressure cold spray technology. “The target is to build multifunctional/ activated composite structures for applications in highcorrosion, fatigue, and solar-powered renewable energy sectors.”
Dr. Saha says products that integrate this technology can increase the longevity of structures by three to four times that of structures made with traditional materials which corrode or break.
One of the main functions of Composites Cluster is to promote the manufacturing capabilities and technologies of its member firms and the distinct advantages of using composites: superior durability and resistance, adaptability to the design of complex custom product shapes, low density and higher resistance to fire, moisture, corrosion and temperature changes.
With support from experts and partners, Composites NB Cluster Group Inc. will develop synergies that propel the Atlantic region into a leadership position in the Canadian composites sector.
The organization also organizes trade missions and information sessions, facilitating skills-building and networking events and brings together partners in government, academia and industry to create business opportunities and promote technology transfer.
R.P. ProFibre Ltd. is among the member firms that have benefited from the Composites Cluster’s robust service offering. The organization played an important role in the launch of the firm’s line of composite marine doors by offering guidance and support throughout the process, from research to commercialization.
“When I started the development process of Composite Cluster as R.P. Pro Fibre., we were kind of the first in the field,” says CEO René Paulin. “From this I’ve studied, tested and worked hand in hand with others to better understand the product, process and possibilities and the final results, which always leave room for improvement. I’m very proud of our accomplishments and to share, with others, my experience and expertise in the field/sector.”
His company specializes in fishing boat repair and the manufacture of marine components and original composite marine doors. “Our main focus in the composite cluster industry is to foster the development and transformation of traditional products into a new line of composite products, e.g. marine doors, ships.”
Paulin believes the local industry has “great (product and market) opportunities” to explore and embrace. “We are creative and we have the potential to fill market needs with innovative products.”
Innovation is at the core of the industry so this level of collaboration is vital. By pooling resources and sharing knowledge, these partners can help manufacturers to commercialize their products, attract new venture capital and investment, find new market niches and open up new export markets. The co-operative nature of the cluster itself provides competitive advantages for its member firms.
Atlantique Boat Builders
Nord Est Construction division Naval
Phoenix Plastique Inc.
R.P. Pro-Fibre Ltée
Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
Government of New Brunswick
Universities & Colleges
Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick
Nova Scotia Community College
Université de Moncton
University of New Brunswick
Atlantic Canada Aerospace & Defence
City of Shippagan
Les Produits Chimique Citadel
Polynt Composites Reichhold
RPC Science & Engineering
In 2014, the group received a half-million-dollar investment from the Government of Canada, through ACOA’s Business Development Program, to engage the services of a consulting firm to study the exportreadiness of New Brunswick manufacturing companies and to help them pursue transfer opportunities, especially in the European market. At that time, the group was getting set to take advantage of the newly-negotiated Canada-European Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement.
Still, funding support is cited as a barrier to achieving business success. “The development of new products takes time and has many challenges that hold up the process,” Jacques Dugas recognizes. “We need a structure that will help bridge the financing between R&D and commercialization.”
That view is also held by Paulin. “We are still at the beginning point in this industry, which leaves room for improvement. In the future, we need to see more independent companies experimenting and applying this new product/technology in residential, commercial, marine and governmental environments. But for all of this to be possible the companies need help in funding and research.”
He adds that education or awareness can be a barrier to growth, recognizing limited “interest or stimulus in the workforce” to pursue careers in the composites sector, resulting in lack of expertise in the product development process.
Still, Paulin predicts a bright future for the sector. “The impact looks very promising. With our product, we’ve created four jobs in the Marine Doors and approximately 30 jobs for the Atlantic Naval Construction.”
Dugas says his firm will be directly and positively impacted by Composites Cluster’s efforts to strengthen and grow the sector. “Our business will get more competitive, more work will come our way, leading to job creation, better profit margins and better economics overall.”
Dugas shares Paulin’s optimistic outlook on the future of the entire industry. This is due in part to increasing demand for green energy products, one of a number of factors and forces shaping and driving current and emerging industry trends.
Dugas says advances in techniques and technologies are constantly improving the manufacturing process as a whole and producing higher quality products. This includes making the process more energy efficient and the products more environmentally sustainable.
Paulin agrees that improvements to techniques and technologies will have a positive ripple effect throughout the entire economy. “Opportunities will increase by manufacturing more appropriate and effective products which will enhance quality, thus increasing demand and sales growth. By providing training and developing our expertise we will further boost the economy and job creation.”
The composites industry dates back centuries when the earliest man-made composite materials were straw and mud, combined to form bricks for building construction, as depicted in the paintings of Egyptian tombs.
GROWN 25 TIMES
From the mid-1900s onward the industry has expanded in size and strength at remarkable speed. According to the research firm Lucintel, the U.S. composites industry has grown 25 times since 1960, compared to the steel industry, which has only grown 1.5 times over the past five decades.
Though New Brunswick’s manufacturers are relatively new to the sector, NB Composites is doing everything it can to help the industry adjust, adapt and innovate in an ever-changing and fast-moving environment.
The organization encourages members to look beyond their borders to tap into new markets. “We could be selling more than just in our area,” Brideau says. “It’s a huge market. We could be selling our boats all the way down the seaboard to Florida,” he says, referring to fishing vessels built by Construction Naval Atlantique in particular.
To facilitate a range of activities to assist our members in developing innovative composite products while also driving the growth of Atlantic Canada’s economy.
POTENTIAL IN CONSTRUCTION
Brideau says five to 10 years from now he wants companies to have the ability and the agility to do work across all sectors; for example, help build infrastructure like bridges for the construction industry. “It’s an industry that’s just there and waiting for advanced solutions. We’re focusing on that,” Brideau says.
The Composites Cluster will support and stimulate growth in the construction sector as part of its bold strategic vision for the not-too-distant future.
That vision sees the cluster turning Atlantic Canada into a hotbed of advanced manufacturing activity, with groundbreaking products reaching all corners of the globe.
“Atlantic Canada could become a leader in the composites industry in Canada,” Brideau predicts. “We’re working towards that.”
Board of Directors
• Jacques Dugas, President, The Tank Shop
• JP Robichaud, Atlantic Boat Builders
• René Paulin, RP ProFibre
• Bernard Morin, Thermopak
• Néri Jean, Everest Plastik
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