It is no secret that carmakers want to use more carbon fiber in their designs. Carbon fiber translates into weight savings without reducing strength or integrity. It will be the key to eventually retiring the internal combustion engine. That day is getting closer, thanks to automation.
When Henry Ford set out to make cars, he realized that only mass production would produce vehicles that average citizens could afford. He helped mature a fledgling assembly-line process that sped up production and cut costs dramatically. If it were not for his innovations, cars would not have become mainstream so quickly.
Likewise, today’s car companies are looking for ways to mass-produce carbon fiber parts cheap enough to make them worthwhile. In order to do that, they need to have automation solutions. Such solutions have been few and far between in past years. Now they are becoming more widely available.
Pultruding Bumper Beams
Chevy was the first car company to mass-produce an all-carbon fiber hood in 2004. But 20 years earlier, they also led the way in applying automation to create thermoplastic composite front bumpers for the Corvette. What they have learned over nearly 40 years has helped them devise an automated process for producing carbon fiber bumper beams.
The new C8 Corvette will come with the bumper beam stock. It offers equal protection compared to an aluminum beam but at 5 pounds less. How does Chevrolet do it? Through a customized pultrusion process.
Pultrusion is a decades-old manufacturing method by which material is pulled through a mold or die to form it. To make carbon fiber bumper beams, multiple strips of resin impregnated carbon fiber fabric are pulled through a series of molds to shape and layer them.
As the material passes through more molds it becomes more compact. Passing through the final mold results in a single piece bumper beam that is perfectly curved to accommodate the cosmetic body piece it supports. And because pultrusion can be completely automated, Chevy is able to produce some 70,000 units annually.
Automation Brings Prices Down
Just like automated robots make car assembly cheaper, automated pultrusion is a faster and cheaper way to fabricate carbon fiber bumper beams. Human intervention is only required to make sure that machines are stocked with fabric and resin. The machine handles the rest by itself.
This sort of automation is what brings carbon fiber prices down, according to Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites. And it is just what the automotive industry needs to incorporate more carbon fiber into its designs. The more fabricating that can be automated, the less costly carbon fiber is to work with.
It is interesting to note that the new C8 Corvette comes off the production line with a price tag in the range of $60,000. It is still a lot more expensive than the typical family SUV, but it would be even more expensive if not for the types of automation concepts that make the carbon fiber bumper possible.
More Processes to Be Discovered
Meanwhile, rest assured that auto makers are not resting on their laurels. They continue to investigate and test other manufacturing processes that will allow them to use even more carbon fiber. Everything from filament winding to braiding and additive manufacturing is on the table. Some are even looking at methods to automate manual layups.
All of this is part of the quest to replace as much aluminum and steel as possible with carbon fiber. The end goal is an electric vehicle with a considerable range equal or better to what we now enjoy with internal combustion engines.