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This year, Hexcel is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Its history, begun with its creation in 1948 by Bud Hughes and Roger Steele, is a rich one and is representative of the path taken by composite materials over the years, particularly high-performance composites.
(Published on July-August 2008 – JEC Magazine #42)
The company motto: “Stronger, Lighter, Faster” illustrates the characteristics with which composites endow complex structures, as well as illustrating the history of a company whose progress continues to pick up speed. After its pioneering early days, the company was built up primarily on the strength of external growth, then went through a period of consolidation and is now developing organically. 2008 marks the opening of two prepreg production units – one for the aviation industry, in France, and the other in China, targeting the wind energy market – and a carbon fibre production plant in Spain, for the aviation industry. Hexcel is a fine example of a thriving company in the composites sector.
Bud Hughes and Roger Steele, former schoolmates and veterans of the Second World War, started out on modest premises on the town of Lafayette, California. For almost two years, Steele worked on the development and manufacturing of machines used to produce his own invention: “expanded honeycomb”. In 1948, they won their first contract for research and development into fibreglass honeycomb for the US Army. This gave rise to the Hexcel Corporation, which at the time went by the name of California Reinforced Plastics. In 1949, they won the contract to manufacture the fuel cell support panels for the B-36 bomber. In 1950, California Reinforced Plastics began to produce aluminium honeycomb for aerospace applications – and this is still in use today. In 1954, California Reinforced Plastics changed its name to Hexcel Products. In 1969, Hexcel materials landed on the Moon with Apollo 11, with the feet of the lunar lander being made of honeycomb composite to absorb the energy of the moon landing. The following year, Concorde was to be fitted with Hexcel products. In 1971 the company began manufacturing skis. It became so famous for this activity on the US market that even today some Americans automatically associate the name Hexcel with skis. In 1981, Hexcel provided materials for the nose, doors and wings of the space shuttle Columbia. In 1986, it built a new factory in Arizona to service its involvement in the B-2 bomber programme. From ’93 to ’95, Hexcel’s situation forced it into restructuring in order to avoid bankruptcy. Yet this proved to be advantageous in the creation, from ’96 to ’98 in conjunction with Ciba Composites, Hercules Composites and some lines of the Fiberite product range, of a wide range of products that could enjoy the benefits of vertical integration and a worldwide geographical set-up. Since then, Hexcel has had notable successes in many sectors, particularly on the sports, civil aviation and wind energy markets, with innovative products and new production sites.
JEC Composites Magazine: Alongside the brand new carbon fibre production line at Illescas, there clearly remains some spare ground. Have you any plans for site extension?
THIERRY MERLOT: For now, nothing has been decided. We shall develop our production capacities in line with the demand and needs of our customers and the market, both at Illescas and on the other sites.
This year, we have already increased our production capacity with the opening of the Nantes site for the production of HexPly® prepregs, Illescas in Spain for the production of our HexTow® carbon fibre and our China factory, centred on the production of prepregs for the wind energy sector.
Last year, we had already opened a plant beside the Airbus factory at Stade in Germany. A great deal of investment has already been made.
The signing of the contract for the A350 with Airbus, in particular for prepregs for the aircraft’s primary structure, may also determine our expansion requirements, but the choice of sites has not yet been made. Hexcel anticipates investing heavily in equipment in order to expand its production capacities, as the A350 programme is ramped up and ultimately reaches its anticipated production rate. The precise schedule and exact size of these expansions will be defined according to the production forecasts and Airbus’ choice of aerostructure suppliers.
JCM: In 2008, Hexcel celebrates its 60th anniversary with a host of recent investments: Nantes (aerospace), Tianjin (wind energy), Illescas (aerospace). This seems to testify to a desire on your part to be situated as close as possible to your biggest customers. Will you continue to branch out and follow them into China and, eventually, India?
T.M.: We are studying every opportunity for expansion on a case-by-case basis in order best to satisfy the demands of our customers.
JCM: What is Hexcel’s situation on the global market? What are its strengths and, possibly, its weaknesses?
T.M.: Hexcel is world leader in advanced composites for civil and military aviation, as well as being a specialist in the field of wind energy. The company proposes to its customers a global offering and composite solutions, from carbon fibre, engineering fabrics and prepregs to adhesives, honeycombs and HexMC® parts. What is more, it is a resolutely international outfit, with sites and customers all around the world. Another of Hexcel’s strengths is undoubtedly the opening of its satellite plants close to its Airbus customer at Stade in Germany and at Nantes in France, in order to offer proximity in response to its customer’s needs and guarantee satisfaction in terms of delivery and reactivity, while improving the quality of the products and increasing the efficiency and reliability of its supply chain as a whole.
JCM: Your sales in 2007 break down as 22, 25 and 53% for defence/space, industry (including wind energy) and commercial aviation respectively. How do you see this sectoral breakdown developing over the medium and long term? Will it be driven by your company’s desire to invest in one or more particular sectors or by the evolution of the markets?
T.M.: It is true that, today, Hexcel has the aeronautical, space and defence markets in its sights, as well as the wind energy market. We are also developing products for certain selected industrial markets. This breakdown may well, of course, change over time as the markets evolve.
Yet, for the time being, the growing demands of the aviation industry – with Airbus and Boeing developing aircraft using more and more composites (52% for the A350) – is driving our sales. Likewise, the wind energy market is set to show healthy growth to the tune of 20% per year over the years to come.
Hexcel is America’s largest producer of carbon fibres, the largest weaver of reinforcement fabrics in the world, one of the world’s premier manufacturers of composite materials, such as honeycomb, prepregs, adhesive film and sandwich panels, and one of the world’s leading producers of composite structures and elements. In 2007, the company had a headcount of 4,000, with factories in 9 countries and a sales revenues of 1.2 billion dollars. It is a similar history to that of the creators of Hewlett-Packard: from modest premises to multinational. In 2008, Hexcel wears its 60 years well. To meet heavy demand and be as close as possible to its customers, the company has opened a prepreg production plant in Tianjin, China, for the wind energy market, and another in Nantes, France, for the aviation market. This summer, the Chinese factory will begin producing HexPly® epoxy prepregs close by its main local customers. The new factory in Nantes is already producing HexPly® M21 unidirectional prepregs, mainly for the neighbouring Airbus factory and its subcontractors. Hexcel had already opened a similar plant in Stade, Germany, in 2007. This type of prepreg is used, for example, in the central wing box of the A380 and A400M. Last but not least, the most recent investment news concerns the opening of a new carbon fibre manufacturing plant at Illescas in Spain.
The first carbon fibres from Spain
At the end of April, Hexcel officially opened its new carbon fibre production plant at Illescas, near Toledo in Spain (figure 1).
It is the first factory of this type in Europe for the company, and the first ever carbon fibre production unit in Spain. The main customer for these HexTow® fibres is the nearby Airbus factory.
This new factory is part of Hexcel’s 280 million-dollar investment programme to bring its carbon production capacities up to 7,000 tonnes per annum by the end of 2009 (figure 2). The factory will produce three types of intermediate modulus fibres (the most commonly-used in aeronautics), namely grades AS4, AS4C and IM7; in 12K tow, with the modulus of elasticity of each fibre between 231 and 276 GPa for a respective breaking stress of 4,400-4,650 MPa and 5,480-5,570 MPa.
The factory building is 250 m long and is in close proximity to another Hexcel plant at Parla, near Madrid, which manufactures prepregs using these same fibres for aeronautical components, such as the horizontal tail plane for the A320/A330 (figure 3) and the rear section of the A380. The PAN fibres used as the raw material come from the Hexcel Decatur plant in Alabama, USA. These first undergo oxidation at 250°C, then carbonization at between 700 and 800°C, and finally graphitization at over 1200°C.
Hexcel is benefiting from the thriving condition of its client markets and its wide range of internal expertise.
At the end of May, the company secured a contract worth an estimated 4 to 5 billion dollars for supplying carbon fibre composites for the primary structures of the Airbus A350 XWB (figure 4). This contract concerns every version of the A350 XWB up until 2025. In addition to the contract for the primary structures, other company products may be used in the secondary structures and in the interior fittings of the A350. These other products could offer a significant source of supplementary revenues generated by this programme. All the materials concerned will be manufactured on the Hexcel sites in the USA, France, Spain, Germany and the UK.