We have arrived….but are we really there yet?

Posted on 1/15/2015 4:47:38 PM By Rick Jones

I know, I know….the title doesn’t make much sense.  But, recently I’ve read some articles that got me thinking about whether this paradox might somewhat apply to structural adhesives. 

We have arrived…

There’s little question that the structural adhesives market has “arrived” in the sense that the number of high value-in-use applications continues to grow.  Ford’s recent launch of its all-aluminum body F-150 pick-up truck is the most obvious example of where structural adhesives were one of the facilitators behind Ford’s bold – some would even say “transformational” – design shift away from steel and welds for its best-selling vehicle.  Developing a manufacturing process that cost-effectively produces high-volume aluminum body panels now allows car makers to consider using this substrate for more than just lower-volume specialty vehicles.  In fact, per the recent Wall Street Journal article Constellium CEO: Focus for Auto Aluminum Sheet Shifting to U.S., " by 2025, 18% of all vehicles in the U.S. are expected to have all-aluminum bodies, compared with less than 1% now.” They must also achieve 54mph fuel efficiency by that time, among other requirements as detailed in the recent video produced by the Adhesive and Sealant Council--Adhesives Drive Value for Automakers.  So, in addition to an ever-expanding list of applications for structural adhesives per vehicle, we’re now in the midst of a very robust sales cycle with forecast sales of better than 17 million vehicles being sold in NA in 2015 – a level not seen in quite some time.

ford, ford f150

Source: Detriot Free Press

To this, we can add the upswing that aircraft manufacturers have seen over the past few years in unit sales and their strong forecast for the future.  For example, Boeing delivered a record 723 jets last year, sees that increasing to 760 this year and then ultimately rising to 900 per year by 2020.  Add to this the good news that the broader US manufacturing base is also returning to a healthy state as evidenced by increased employment levels, factory expansions, re-shoring, etc. 

There’s obviously no doubt that all of these positive indicators bode extremely well for the increased consumption of structural adhesives of all chemistries across a multitude of industries in both the near and long terms.  As a result, it’s quite easy to conclude that structural adhesives have truly “arrived.”

….but are we really there yet?

The question of whether we’re there yet is by no means meant to be a “downer.” Instead, I pose it more so as a “clarion call” to the industry to avoid becoming comfortable with its collective good fortune because such complacency can sometimes be an intellectual “cancer” that stunts invention and innovation.  Adhesive manufacturers have done an absolutely phenomenal job over the past couple of decades by continually adding to the value proposition that structural adhesives deliver.  And, I’m well aware that work continues on developing structural adhesives that bond in less-than-optimum conditions and/or to less-than-forgiving substrates.  But, as harsh as it may sound, is that all there is?  If so, then maybe we need to develop a different perspective when it comes to structural adhesives.  By this I mean, should we possibly look at structural adhesives as being something more than just very strong “glues?”  Much has certainly been written about multi-functionality, but it was an article about the recent Consumer Electronics Show that really got me thinking about this.  Auto interiors are no longer just seats and arm rests, but instead are now treated as entertainment and information “hubs.”  So, is it possible to develop “smart” structural adhesives that not only adhere well but are part of this information hub, for example, sending an “error message” when a critical bond is about to fail for whatever reason – much like the alarm that you get when a tire is going flat?  Could it then be feasible for it alert you where the failure is occurring?  How about repairing itself? 

I have no clue as to the potential chemistry or physics issues with any of these ideas, nor whether these are even good ideas in the first place.  All I know is that we’re doing things today with structural adhesives that very few envisioned possible 20-30 years ago.  Thus, my point is that if we limit the scope of our thinking to only developing incrementally stronger or more flexible “glues,” we as an industry risk allowing today’s successes to be the final leg of our journey instead of being a brief stopover on our way toward even greater, more exciting destinations.

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