Get talking: composite regulations are out of step

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2017

Professor Janice Dulieu-Barton discusses the importance of modernising composite materials regulations.

Advanced fibre reinforced polymer composite materials have huge potential to shape the modern world. The use of composites in aerospace and automobile design is now widespread, but they have much broader potential for use in other sectors such as in building and bridge construction, railway and rail infrastructure, as well as marine and offshore. The potential is greatest when there is a need to move towards lighter and more energy-efficient structures that also provide more sustainable design and rapid installation. Composites also offer additional benefits such as reduced through-life costs, as they are corrosion resistant and thereby generally offer significantly reduced maintenance compared with metallic materials.

In 2013, the global market for composite products was US$68bln, which is predicted to grow to US$105bln by 2030. The UK’s share of this market is currently around £2bln (about 3%), which is estimated to grow to £12bln or more by 2030, according to the 2016 UK Composites Strategy. This figure could rise to as high as £16bln if the sectors that have not previously embraced the use of composites were to experience the same rate of growth as the aerospace sector, where composite materials now make up more than 50% of the airframe weight in the latest generation of modern passenger aircraft.

For companies considering incorporating composite materials into their designs, there are still many questions – will the composite materials really deliver their promised benefits? How much will the composite solution cost? Is there a sufficiently well-established supply chain to deliver the products? Will the industry regulator approve the design?

These questions can be resolved through demonstrator projects. Typically, these are part-funded by public money to reduce the risk to industry. However, the question of regulations and certification is often overlooked, although it is widely recognised as one of the major inhibitors to the uptake of composites in new sectors. This is because regulations, codes and standards are often inappropriate for composites, and in some sectors they are even explicitly and implicitly based on named materials (so being ‘prescriptive’ or ‘equivalence’ based), such as steel, having the effect of not permitting consideration of composites applications, despite the potential benefits. 

The regulations surrounding the use of composite materials are the subject of a University of Southampton study conducted by a multidisciplinary team that has resulted in a recently published position paper.

The position paper presents a detailed review of the existing regulatory regimes in the aerospace, automotive, construction, defence, maritime, oil and gas, rail and renewables sectors. The review represents the first comparative study of its kind, and it has highlighted the need for an alternative approach to the regulatory processes. Although each industrial sector has different demands on materials and their use in load bearing structures, the review underlines the need for a more generic approach in regulatory regimes. At present, many government departments and agencies share responsibility for developing and implementing regulations. Hence, companies must deal with multiple authorities and testing protocols to get their new composite products to market, resulting in a significant barrier to adopting composite materials and the design freedom they offer.

A ‘performance’ based regulatory framework, which currently provides the guiding principles and backbone for the certification of composites, for example aerostructures and wind blades, should be adapted to the needs of each sector to make it easier for manufacturers to prove that their materials can perform to the required operational safety and performance standards. Another important recommendation is the call for one Government department to have overall responsibility for the regulation of composite materials use, with possible representation in other departments. Following the publication of the paper, the next step is to convene a task group sponsored by Government and including key players from the regulatory bodies, industry and academia to take the new regulatory proposition forward in industries that are not using composite materials to their full potential.

Janice Dulieu-Barton is a Professor of Experimental Mechanics in the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton, UK, and an internationally recognised expert on experimental evaluation of the behaviour of lightweight structures, including those made from fibre reinforced polymer composite materials.

To read the position paper, visit