Ahead of the game

By adopting an active acquisition policy to help it stay on top of technological advancements, Gurit has established a lean process of making composite materials

For more than 30 years, Gurit has been involved in the practical application of composite materials across various market sectors, during which time the company and the industry have grown hand in hand. As composites technology now represents a desirable opportunity for manufacturers of any kind looking to find component weight reduction or enable more complex component geometry, Gurit is among the leading experts providing comprehensive solutions to specific customer requirements, focusing predominantly on the wind energy, aerospace, and marine sectors.

“As a material supplier, you have to differentiate yourself, because the composites industry is becoming more commodity-based, especially for markets like wind energy,” says Damian Bannister, Director Innovation Composite Materials at Gurit. “Therefore, it is crucial that you can offer additional technical services like structural engineering and manufacturing process design to provide composite technology solutions. In addition to maintaining an innovative edge it has also been critical to reduce the product cost and this has been achieved by focusing on lean manufacturing and consolidating the supply chain by appropriate acquisitions. By focusing on the total value proposition for the customer, Gurit has built the current business around our strong technical composite know-how and a targeted acquisition strategy.”

Two of the latest acquisitions made by Gurit involved the purchase of BASF’s PET structural foam business and JSB, a company that specialises in the transformation of core blocks into detailed core kits required for wind turbine blades. “The acquisition of BASF’s PET business was aimed at boosting our extrusion know-how in PET in preparation for the predicted technology shift in wind energy from using conventional PVC foams to the lower cost and more sustainable PET materials. The latest PET foam materials are manufactured using consumer grade recycled PET in a continuous extrusion process to provide an optimum raw material and manufacturing cost base.

“Related to this acquisition was the move we made to buy JSB in late 2018. As the market leader for core material kits for wind turbine blades, JSB possesses key competencies in designing and creating the complex shapes required for blade manufacturing. It is a highly-automated process, which is capable of converting the different core materials that are currently used in blade construction such as Balsa wood, PVC, PET and SAN foam. Therefore, the core kitter plays a key role in reducing the complexity of material supply chain management for the OEM and provides essential know-how for the successful manufacture of high quality wind blades. In the medium term the objective is to look at further opportunities to optimise the supply chain by integrating foam manufacturing and the kitting process. In this scenario, the PET waste from the process can be readily recycled and shipping costs in the supply chain will be reduced significantly,” Damian discusses, adding that Gurit also operates balsa plants in Ecuador and Indonesia, manufactures SAN foam in Canada and also has a distributor agreement with a PVC manufacturer to cover all bases with regards to access to core materials for the wind energy market.

Damian outlines the progress the wind energy industry has made and where Gurit sees its future in this large volume market for composite materials: “Wind energy has become competitive in recent years with conventional fossil fuel energy sources and no longer relies on government subsidies. This has been achieved in part by the relentless drive for larger more efficient turbines, commoditisation of the supply chain and economies of scale from consolidation of the OEM’s. Gurit has been well positioned as a supplier of materials and technology to the wind market for over 25 years and has managed to adapt its offering as the industry has matured to maintain a leading position in the supply chain. Gurit will continue to develop technology and the product offering as the market demands and continue to build the business for the future.”

In addition to the wind market, Gurit is also a composite material supplier to the aerospace, marine and automotive sectors. Damian explains some of the different challenges these markets present: “Gurit supplies prepreg materials (glass and carbon fibre fabrics pre-impregnated with thermoset resins) to the aerospace market primarily for the manufacture of the interiors of the aircraft. In additional to the mechanical requirements there are stringent requirements for fire performance properties and as you would expect very light weight structures. Whilst the qualification entry requirements are technically and procedurally challenging the reward is a stable and predictable sales income with long product lifecycles.

“In contrast the marine market is less risk adverse, and to produce a competitive racing yacht you need to be on the limits of the design. This requires a very different approach where the yacht designer, structural engineer, boat builder and material supplier need to work closely together. Gurit developed a structural engineering capability over 30 years ago as a key enabler for materials sales in the race boat market and has designed many famous yachts in the Americas Cup and other prestigious ocean races. This engineering capability has been invaluable for Gurit to gain insight into the requirements for composite materials not only in their structural properties but also in manufacturing and processing characteristics. As composites by their nature are a mixture of fibres, resins and core materials their processing can be complex and therefore a deep understanding of material science is required to successfully manufacture high performance structures at the first attempt (most racing yachts or super yachts are one-offs). comTherefore, to complete Gurit’s capability to offer a complete technology solution a technical support function exists to provide highly skilled material processing support to the boat builders.”

Damian goes on to explain how the technical skills developed for the Marine market have been used to introduce composite materials to new markets: “The technical skills of material science, engineering and composite processing gave us the capability to design and build composite components for industries that conventionally used metal. The automotive industry is a good example of a mature metal based industry that has many specialist engineers and scientists but with limited composites know-how or experience. As a result, there were many examples of composite materials being used in a metal design, which largely eliminated the potential benefits of the composite or produced prohibitive manufacturing costs. To bridge this know-how gap Gurit began to prototype composite body panels as demonstrators for automotive OEM’s and then as a natural progression became a tier 1 supplier of high performance carbon body panels. However, many challenges still remain for composites to penetrate the automotive sector more broadly. Although light weighting is becoming a key topic with the move to reduce emissions and electric vehicles, the raw material and processing costs are still too high for high volume production vehicles, e.g. greater than 20,000 upa.”

Summing up, Damian suggests that for Gurit to continue its success in its chosen markets it will have to continually focus on its cost base, innovation and to focus resources appropriately: “Gurit is a supplier of multiple product categories in the composite industry including cores, prepregs, adhesives, tooling, laminating systems and finished components. In addition, we also serve four vertical markets which can produce many good technical and commercial synergies but at the same time increases complexity. Therefore, Gurit has to stay focused on its key product ranges and chosen markets so that five years from now we will have strengthened our position as both a cost and innovation leader.”

Products: Composite materials