One way is through engineering co-development projects. Typically, these include an automotive OEM, a material provider, and sometimes also a parts fabricator. General Motors' co-development agreement with Teijin is based on the Japanese carbon fiber and composite producer's compression molding process that speeds manufacturing and makes it more efficient for mass production. Cycle times are under one minute, well within automakers' tact time requirement for mass-produced vehicles, speeding prototype production and performance testing. It's also much shorter than the five-minute molding times required by thermoset resins used in traditional carbon composites.
Ford and Dow Automotive Systems' joint development agreement also targets the development of carbon composites for mainstream manufacturing. Teams of researchers from both companies will focus on materials and processes. They aim to establish an economical source of automotive-grade carbon fiber, while at the same time developing methods for manufacturing components that work well in high-volume automotive applications.
The project's early gateways will determine specifics such as what processes and materials will be developed and which parts of the car will be targeted, said deVries. "Later we'll want to demonstrate these materials and processes and run them at rate. At the end of the program we should have arrived at the target of a specific vehicle model and a specific component or subsystem."
The industry needs to define what's required in an automotive grade of carbon fiber, according to deVries:
Aerospace-grade carbon requires a higher level of strength that we don't really need. A lot of our work is aimed at getting enough stiffness. We had carbon fiber on the Ford GT and for a while on the Mustang 500, so we have some experience, but in low volumes and long cycle times. High volumes require short cycle times. How they're defined depends on the part and production volume. For this agreement, we're looking at under five minutes.
The goal of the multi-year, renewable agreement is developing the right system of fiber and resin, as well as a manufacturing process, for high volumes, said Florian Schattenmann, global R&D director for Dow Automotive Systems.
Not only do we need to address carbon fiber cost, but also productivity. This collaboration is expected to leverage work Dow has already begun with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in projects funded by grants from the US Department of Energy.
The agreement also leverages Dow's joint venture with Turkish carbon fiber maker AKSA, which focuses on large-scale production capabilities to manufacture and commercialize carbon fiber and derivatives. deVries said:
A major concern is whether there's enough carbon fiber in the world to meet the needs of mainstream automotive manufacturing. So far, carbon has been used in low-volume applications: aerospace, sports equipment, wind turbines, and racecars.
Because of Dow's joint venture with AKSA, the partners have several paths for addressing costs and infrastructure.
Another major co-development project is the consortium led by UK-based Umeco Structural Materials, which includes Aston Martin Lagonda, Delta Motorsport, ABB Robotics, and Pentangle Engineering Services. The ACOMPLICE project, funded by the Collaborative Research and Development program of the UK's Technology Strategy Board, will make steps toward overcoming some of the challenges of the cost and manufacturing cycle times of high-performance carbon composites, said Elaine Arnold, Umeco's project manager of collaborative R&T.