Auto Manufacturing: Are the Days of Costly Carbon Fiber Gone?

Everything we know about carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) tells us that auto makers should have long ago replaced every metal part in their cars with a carbon fiber alternative. And yet they haven’t. Why? Because of the cost. Carbon fiber fabricating is just too expensive to embrace for mass production and still keep car prices reasonable. At least that’s how it’s been until recently.

Could the days of carbon fiber being too costly be gone? They aren’t gone quite yet, explains Rock West Composites out of Salt Lake City, but they are on the way out. The composites industry is gradually coming up with new and more innovative ways to fabricate carbon fiber parts at a much lower cost. A good example is a project now being undertaken by South Korea’s Kia Motors.

Less Expensive Part Fabrication

Composites World Magazine reports that Kia Motors recently entered an agreement with the Korea Institute of Carbon Convergence Technology (KCTECH) to work on a joint project that will accelerate the adoption of carbon fiber parts by the automotive industry. The two began working together at the end of January 2019.

It appears that Kia Motors has opened a new technical center on the KCTECH campus in Jeon-ju city. The centerpiece of their new facility is a revolutionary light induction tooling machine capable of fabricating carbon fiber parts without the need for high heat autoclaves and compression presses. The manufacturer of the machine says that it is “a turnkey solution that eliminates the need for high cost capital equipment” in a composite manufacturing setting.

To put it as simply as possible, fabricating carbon fiber car parts is costly and time-consuming. Rock West Composites explains that the normal process involves a manual layup whereby multiple layers of woven carbon fiber fabric are laid into a mold and impregnated with epoxy resin. The entire mold is then pressed before being put in a high-heat autoclave to cure.

The light induction tooling method employs a combination of shell molding and induction heating to create the same finished part much more quickly and at a fraction of the overall cost. The process has already proved effective for fabricating both electrical and automotive parts with carbon fiber.

Competition Among Carmakers

Light induction tooling is by no means ready to be put to use in the mass production of car parts. It still has to be perfected, which is what Kia Motors is now working on. The company is investing considerable time and financial resources into getting it done.

Make no mistake, Kia Motors is not doing this simply because they need something to keep themselves occupied. They are doing it because they have to in order to compete with other carmakers looking for a way to get more carbon fiber into the average passenger vehicle. Intense competition among manufacturers is being fueled by what now appears to be the inevitability of electric vehicles.

Making electric vehicles both practical and cost-effective requires a new way of looking at things At the top of the list is a practical way to reduce weight. Carbon fiber just happens to be the material of choice for weight reduction, but it is too expensive. The first car company that figures out a way to produce carbon fiber parts at a cost comparable to steel and aluminum will have a decided advantage in the race to electric vehicle dominance.

We will see what Kia Motors accomplishes with light induction tooling. We should begin seeing their results within the next couple of years.

Post Author: Sophie Toby Hall

A former car magazine editor, Sophie’s blog offers in-depth car reviews, industry trends, and maintenance tips. Her breadth of knowledge makes her posts invaluable for both car enthusiasts and everyday drivers.