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Report calls for new approach to use of composite materials

25 Apr 17 The use of composite materials in construction and engineering is being stymied by inappropriate standards and regulations, according to a major new report.

A new approach to composites could be worth £4bn to the UK economy by 2030 if barriers to innovation were removed.

The report, Modernising composite materials regulations, published by the University of Southampton calls for industry and government to work together to put an end to the constraints that currently inhibit the use of composite materials in the construction and offshore engineering sectors.

The study was carried out by a multidisciplinary team from Southampton’s Faculties of Engineering and the Environment, and Business, Law and Art (Institute of Maritime Law), supported by the Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute and the University’s department for Research & Innovation Services (RIS).

The report recognises the UK as a global leader in the research and development of composite materials and structures but says that the country is not the most agile in bringing these new products to market. As economic and sustainability pressures, pressure  to reduce energy consumption and installation times, demand has grown for stronger, lighter, more durable materials tailor made for purpose.

In 2013, the global market for composite products was US$68bn, which is predicted to grow to US$ 105bn by 2030. The UK’s share of this market is £2bn (around 3%) which is estimated to grow to £12bn or more by 2030. This figure could rise to as high as £16bn 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 the use of composite materials has increased massively over the last three decades. More than 50% of the weight of the newest generation of aeroplanes is made up by composite materials replacing metal alloys. 

One of the major inhibitors to the uptake of composites in new sectors is that regulations, codes and standards are often inappropriate for composites. This is because they tend to prescribe specific materials, such as steel, and do not permit consideration of alternative materials that may be equally or more appropriate.

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“Advanced polymer composite materials have a huge potential to shape the modern world,” said Professor Ole Thybo Thomsen, head of the infrastructure research group at Southampton and co-author of the position paper. “The use of composites in aerospace and automobile design is now the norm, 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. In aerospace alone, 52% by weight of the latest generation of aircraft are now composed of composite materials.

“In the UK there is currently very limited coordination and centralisation of the codes and standards data associated with new composite materials,” said Professor Simon Quinn, director of the university’s Research Institute for Industry (RiFi) and the lead researcher of the paper. “There is neither a coherent development of certified testing facilities, nor a formal process for different sectors to share information and best practice. These factors have reduced productivity, discouraged research and development and innovation, and significantly increased the time to market for new composite products.”

Prof Quin added: “Industry and government have not shared information. In the UK there are four government departments dealing with material regulation and the minister with overall responsibility for health and safety (the minister for the disabled) has neither the mandate nor the resources to harmonise this system. There are also seven agencies involved in regulation, alongside a lack of suitably qualified and experienced personnel, creating a labyrinth of assurance without the guarantee of certification at the end. This is a considerable disincentive to those companies wanting to innovate, and a significant barrier to new companies entering the markets.”

The paper recommends that ‘performance’ assessment methods 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 related to that sector.

The authors also call for one government department to have overall responsibility for regulation, with representation in other departments.

To download a pdf executive summary of Modernising composite materials regulations, click here.

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