Consumer Level Carbon Fiber: Cost is Still the Question

Anyone who follows the composites industry is familiar with the fact that the aerospace and marine sectors are the largest consumers of carbon fiber. In fact, planes like the Boeing 787 would not be possible without this space-age material that is lighter and stronger than steel. And yet, carbon fiber has still found its way to consumer products.

For example, take the humble tripod. A tripod is an invaluable tool for photographers looking to take the perfect shot. Aluminum is the material of choice for most tripods, but photographers do have access to carbon fiber models now. The question they have to ask themselves is whether or not the higher price of carbon fiber is worth it.

Cost is Hard to Escape

At Rock West Composites in Salt Lake City, Utah, team members work with all sorts of clients to furnish them with carbon fiber fabric, tubes, prepregs, and more. The Rock West staff knows all too well that the cost of carbon fiber is hard to escape. The fact of the matter is that it is more expensive than other manufacturing materials.

Rock West says most of the expense is wrapped up in production. Just turning carbon molecules into fiber requires a tremendous amount of heat. That means substantial amounts of fuel energy to produce that heat. Turning the carbon fiber into something like a tripod requires additional labor that is both slow and arduous.

The good news is that the price of carbon fiber is coming down. As production of virgin carbon fiber ramps up and recyclers are coming up with new ways to reclaim carbon fiber waste, manufacturers are spending less to get their hands on this exceptional manufacture material.

Making the Choice

For the consumer, making the choice between carbon fiber and other materials doesn’t necessarily always ride on cost. Sometimes there are other factors to consider. Once again, let us go back to the tripod as an example. If you were are a photographer looking to purchase a new one, what would be most important to you?

A photographer who spends a lot of time working outdoors might want a tripod that is rugged enough to stand up to significant punishment. You get that with carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is exceptionally strong and rigid. It will not rust either, which is a big plus.

On the other hand, carbon fiber’s rigidity makes it more likely to splinter or shatter if it does suffer a significant impact. Aluminum is a lot more malleable. Subject it to the same impact and aluminum is likely to only bend. A little TLC can bend it back well enough to continue using the tripod.

Weight is probably not a concern with a tripod given the relative weight of aluminum. But a photographer trying to save every possible ounce may prefer carbon fiber instead.

Consider the Budget

At the end of the day, consumers really have to consider their budgets. If they can afford carbon fiber and they believe its greater strength and corrosion resistance justify the cost, carbon fiber it is. But if aluminum will do the job at a significantly lower cost, carbon fiber might not be worth it.

Carbon fibers proliferation is such that consumers now have access to it in countless forms. In addition to the humble tripod, consumers can purchase carbon fiber golf clubs, skis, tennis rackets, and bicycles. They can purchase carbon fiber helmets for their motorcycles along with matching sunglasses made with carbon fiber frames. The list goes on and on.

So what do you think? Is carbon fiber worth the cost?

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