Skip to main content

In recent years, United States civil and utility infrastructure systems have received renewed attention due to growing reliability concerns. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the nation’s water systems and energy grids are entering a state of crisis through multiple failings, while one in four bridges is categorized as deficient. Materials like steel and concrete have been cited for many of these inadequacies, with these traditional materials lacking the long-term durability necessary to maintain safe, functioning systems.

As experts rallied for new Industry 4.0 solutions to overcome these shortcomings, the Biden administration announced the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021. Notably, this federal spending package allocates $550 billion to rehabilitate civil and utility infrastructure through 2026. Now more than ever, industry leaders are calling for greater use of composites due to their many advantages.

What Are Composites and Why Do They Matter?

Composites are essentially a combination of elements with differing properties that work in tandem to create a stronger, more durable end product. In infrastructure, fiber-reinforced polymer (FPR) is one of the most commonly used composites. Compared to widely used steel and concrete, composites only make up about 1% of infrastructure materials by volume yet bring significantly more benefits, especially in demanding infrastructure environments and applications. Composite material offers superior corrosion resistance while being lightweight, resilient, and low maintenance.

Despite the plentiful positives that address what is needed for infrastructure improvements, there is one critical factor that sets back composites: cost. Composites can cost between 15% and 25% more than steel and concrete. However, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, and the need to scale operations are fueling a push towards composites. With the global composites market set to rise nearly 8% between 2022 and 2030, domestic manufacturers have an opportunity to improve profits as conversations in favor of the shift to composites intensify. Eastman’s American-made composite cutting machines are primed to help the U.S. composites market meet this amplified demand.

Where Can Composites Be Used?

Composites have been used in a number of domestic civil infrastructure projects. In February 2019, record-low temperatures caused a bascule bridge in Michigan City, Indiana to buckle. When discussing repair, workers knew concrete and steel rebar wouldn’t be an option. This direction would force construction to halt until temperatures were warm enough to support concrete’s four-week curing process. An FRP system was selected instead, making the bridge lighter, stronger, and corrosion-resistant. The large prefabricated FRP panels eliminated labor and the bridge was able to reopen in April 2019. Later that year, the same FRP system was used to construct a new two-lane shared-use path along Lake Tahoe’s shoreline in Nevada. The 11-mile section, though mountainous, was swiftly completed due to the much lighter material.

Utility infrastructure is also bolstered by composites. Recently, more regions have begun installing composite utility poles in favor of traditional wooden poles because of their simple installation and fire resistance. With millions of wooden utility poles requiring annual replacement due to decay and damage, composites have a strong opportunity to become the new standard solution. Others in the industry have also taken to composites for manhole manufacturing. Weighing one-third less than metal and concrete which typically is used in manhole manufacturing, composites are easier to install and can even fit right into existing frames.

Hubbell Incorporated, a leading utility and electrical solutions manufacturer, recently began using Eastman automated cutting machines to cut reinforcing fabrics for polymer concrete and polymer composite products. These reinforced materials–which are used to build utility enclosures, covers, and pads–give Hubbell’s products four times the strength while weighing 10 times less than traditional concrete. The switch from manual cutting to Eastman’s C125 conveyor system and patternPro software has greatly reduced Hubbell’s fabric waste and costs through precise, repeatable results.

Composite material continues to dramatically transform American infrastructure. Due to complex material properties, composite cutting solutions must be functional, reliable, and customizable. Eastman’s industrial solutions are ideal for cutting dry and prepreg composite materials like carbon fiber, fiberglass, aramid, and nonwoven core materials. The automated equipment boasts accuracy and precision, supporting manufacturers working with expensive materials and strict industry guidelines.