Long used in aircraft, strong, lightweight carbon fiber composites are still too expensive for high-volume, mainstream automotive manufacturing. Although volumes can't be manufactured fast enough to amortize their high materials cost, automakers are tempted: Carbon composites offer weight savings of 30 percent to 40 percent over metals. So composite manufacturers, often partnering with automakers, are working on lower-cost materials, processes better suited to high-volume manufacturing, and fabrication methods to cope with complex shapes.
Niche car manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Daimler, and Lamborghini have launched development programs, and so have electric vehicle manufacturers. But adapting these materials for mainstream manufacturing poses several difficulties. For carbon to make an impact, the automotive industry must overcome three major challenges: reducing fiber cost, creating an infrastructure that assures enough quantity of supply, and creating volume manufacturing processes, Jim deVries, Ford Motor Co.'s global manager of materials manufacturing research, said in an interview.
The ACOMPLICE consortium headed by Umeco is examining the use of robotics to speed up part production rates. It may also look at methods for positioning plies faster and more accurately than humans can, as in this close-up showing automated ply application.
Discussions of carbon composite use are sometimes framed as carbon versus lightweight steel or aluminum. But that's not how the car companies see it, Jay Baron, director of the Coalition of Automotive Lightweighting Materials (CALM) and president of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), told us. CALM participants have met separately with representatives of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler to discuss strategies and barriers to lightweighting. The organization's stance is that a mix of materials is needed to achieve lightweighting. Baron said:
When asked how aggressively they will introduce new materials, auto company engineers respond that their objective is not to make the car lighter, but to make it more fuel-efficient. Lightweighting is only one way to do that. The real competition isn't carbon fiber versus aluminum, for example, but lightweighting technologies against other fuel economy technologies.
Carbon fiber would be one of the most appealing lightweighting materials, if it weren't for the cost, Baron said. CALM is exploring the opportunities and the need to develop a roadmap for implementing low-cost, high-volume composite production.
Carmakers' predictions of when carbon composites will be ready for mainstream manufacturing can vary within a single company. People in different functions within the auto companies have different perspectives of the readiness of these new technologies, said Baron.
For example, research staff might think a technology will be ready soon and the product design team may say they can design with it, but those in manufacturing may not be able to make it yet at the right production rate, and purchasing staff may not have enough suppliers to provide it. They're looking at the supply chain with different objectives.
A major challenge for introducing composites is the fact that the automotive industry was built around metal technologies, mostly steel and aluminum, said Peter Cate, global strategic marketing manager for composites of Dow Automotive Systems. Moving to a different technology means competing against highly optimized processes. Cate told us:
OEMs must be assured that the risks of making that switch are in balance with the benefits. Whether carmakers or component producers are convinced of these benefits, and the majority are, they have to re-engineer vehicle structures, not just components, since those components are central to the structures. New materials and new processes must be accommodated and invested in. There's a lot of learning from composites used in niche applications, but they won't translate directly to high volumes. The industry is in the infancy of developing the right new processes.
Good overview of the auto industry's work on carbon composites, Ann. Seems it is inevitable that carbon composites will eventually be used in consumer autos. It will be interesting to see whether the costs come down once they hit high-volume manufacturing.
Thanks, Rob. Progress isn't very fast, but it is being made. What's just happened recently is the formation of these consortia of major players with a lot of R&D dollars committed to making it happen. Costs will definitely come down once the processes and materials have been developed that will work in high volumes, since lower-cost materials and processes are among the top goals of all of these efforts.
Thanks, Chuck. This article was focused specifically on carbon composites. Both metals you mention are considered for aerospace--titanium especially is used in various places on aircraft--but are usually considered far too expensive (materials) and/or slow to produce to consider for mass manufacturing of high-volume cars. Titanium is sometimes used in high-end race cars.
The use of alternative materials such as carbon fiber or titanium, as stated in the article, is driven by fuel efficiency goals. to improve fuel efficiency, there are three main areas of research: reducing weight, reducing dissipative losses (frictional losses & aerodynamic drag) and improving powerplant efficiency. These can be complementary, as improvements in one area can provide benefits in the other areas. A titanium engine block, for example, would be lighter, but might also have a higher operating temperature, reducing the size of the radiator, which would reduce weight and frontal area, lowering drag.
The problem with titanium is the cost of separating the metal from the ore. Aluminum was once more expensive than gold, until the Hall-Herout process was developed to extract the pure metal from ore more cheaply. If a similar breakthough could be achieved with titanium, it would have much wider application as the cost would be much lower.
Similarly, if the process for manufacturing raw carbon fiber could be improved, and production rates increased through improved fabrication processes, the cost would drop, and more products could afford to take advantage of carbon fiber's unique material properties.
So it seems that the research efforts should focus on reducing material cost. Once the cost is low enough, as the saying goes: "If you build it, they will come!".
This seems like an interesting element in the "lightweighting" game. As ratkinsonjr points out, sometimes a process development is needed before materials become cost effective. Who knows, perhaps converting automatic knitting machines to make cloth "shapes" for the automotive industry is the sort of cross-pollination of technologies that could make carbon fiber cost effective as a solution. Glad to see a consortium working on this. Thanks for the story.
@Ann: Titanium is not expected to play a big role in automotive lightweighting, but magnesium is. The Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Program forecasts that magnesium will make up 12% of a vehicle's weight by 2035 (compared to <1% today). They have been doing a lot of work on magnesium casting techniques. This would make a good topic for a future article.
Why the fascination of carbon fibres. The same techniques can be used with glass fibres which are cheaper. This can create as light structures which are, admittedly, less stiff but no less strong. The main importance is correct fibre orientation and high fibre density, i.e. squeezing out the resin. The same techniques can be applied to glass as carbon.
The high fibre density is cheaper in materials, lighter and less brittle.
Rapid curing is generally a result of using an appropriate resin - plus the use of heat. The advantage of applying heat is that a slower mix can be used but rapid curing applied once the shell or component is fully laid up. The safest method would be to use hot water. Possibly a water jacket could be applied using the water to squeeze the shells to get high compaction and then the cold water could be run out and hot water inserted to accelerate the cure.
Archie, I think the fascination with carbon fibers is the environmental factor. However, the steel folks argue that the front end of the carbon fiber process eats up considerable energy -- plus, they argue that steel is very easy to recycle.
I read with interest the threads on CF –I am involved with many companies worldwide regards CF composites and what I am seeing is new CF material formats combined with new and modified process and polymers that are opening up a significant potential for auto applications. Aluminium's, steels, titanium and magnesium will never compete with a material format that can be moulded with variable thicknesses – strategic laminate direction and can be combined with many other materials. You will see a greater use of glass CF hybrids in the future. Regarding recycling – with the greater acceptance of TP polymers and their increase performance the recycling issue goes away!! so yes the use of CF is inevitable !!
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