Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia Inc.
The feat becomes even more significant considering the cost-sensitive, conservative supply chain that is the automotive industry combined with a worldwide pandemic and its associated global supply chain challenges. In the same period, the company has not only succeeded in building relationships with high-performance, high profile brands – including Ferrari, GM, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover – to produce its technologically advanced, lightweight carbon fibre wheels but has also taken the critical steps of designing, engineering and commissioning an industrial megaline for mass wheel production.
Historically, Australian manufacturing leaned on imported European machinery for production lines, a strategy easily replicated worldwide, reducing competitive efficacy to mere labour cost. However, Carbon Revolution breaks this norm with the installation of its ‘Mega–line’, a new-to-world industrialization program, much of it realised through a technological innovation network in Victoria.
Harnessing automation for enhanced efficiency and precision and two years in the making, Carbon Revolution’s Mega-line Industrialization Program, was designed to improve throughput and reduce production expenses. This line transforms the company’s foundational patented composite production technologies into an automated, digitalized production setup, utilizing an overhead transport system to streamline material flow across various processes. To achieve this vision, Carbon Revolution formed industrial engineering partnerships with a number of local firms, including but not limited to Darcan Engineering, Plastool and Marand Precision Engineering to engineer a cutting-edge production line.
The Carbon Revolution development team collaborated with the Victorian-regionally based firm, Darcan Engineering, to further automate the fabric cutting process which employs linear actuators that exert tonnes of sheer force. The process was developed and engineered to deliver high volumes of precisely cut structural fabric pieces. Precisely cut stacks of fabric shapes facilitate the subsequent automated pick and place production process. Wheel rim preforms are fabricated from carbon fibre fabrics, carbon fibre tow and preforming aids that allow the precise construction demanded by the downstream RTM process. The fibrous materials are applied and wound at high speed by dedicated automated machinery – also developed in-house. An overhead transport system eliminates manual handling processes.
The Mega-line project encompasses multiple moulding stations coupled to High Pressure-RTM Injection moulding machines, achieving fast cycle time through decoupling production line constraints. Crafted by Plastool in Moorabbin, Victoria, the mould tools, maintain high levels of vacuum, hold back huge resin injection pressures and high moulding temperatures while delivering highly precise part geometries upon demould. The tools can weigh close to 500kg. The intricacies of the process are managed by specially designed robots, responsible for extracting the moulded wheel from its tool. Once the wheel is freed, these tools are automatically cleaned and returned to the initial layup area, ready for another production cycle.
Once moulded, the wheel embarks on a sequence of factory processes that encompass the unique Diamond Weave Technology ™ (patents pending) application, followed by precision machining, CT scanning, and a finishing paint application.
Deflashing, though minimal, is now an automated process with robotic arms programmed to navigate and finesse complex curves.
The company’s wheels feature its patented Diamond Weave Technology ™ (patents pending), which ensures the aesthetic quality of carbon fibre weave on visible surfaces of the wheel face. Earlier methodologies placed the visible layer, a surface ply 2×2 Twill, at the outset in the face tool. The fascia’s layer is now being integrated during a secondary moulding operation on the already structured wheel moulding. This methodology helps in many ways including sandwiching the surface ply fabric between two rigid tools ensuring its stability and perfectly detailed appearance.
Fellow Victorian company, Marand Precision Engineering, played a pivotal role in developing the mechanical framework of the Mega-line that seamlessly blends efficiency with precision. This collaboration highlights how expertise in mechanical engineering can transform the very essence of production, ensuring that each carbon fibre wheel is a testament to precision engineering and innovative design. This initial phase is expected to add 75,000 wheels per annum to its production capacity.
There is no doubt that the success of the Megaline is a result of the extraordinary portfolio of R&D undertaken by Carbon Revolution, woven with contributions from an industrial community of experts – only some of which are mentioned above – each adding a unique thread to the masterpiece. The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” finds a fitting parallel in the world of manufacturing: it takes a community like Geelong, steeped in automotive manufacturing history to raise a new global Tier 1 supplier.
Carbon Revolution’s IP portfolio, including more than 100 patents (granted and pending) and extensive wheel manufacturing know-how, enables the mass production of lightweight wheels and positions the company as a market frontrunner in solving the global automotive industry’s challenges in its shift to electrification. Four EV wheel programs are now underway with automotive OEMs and the company’s light weight technology also has potential application in space, defence and other industrial markets.
Carbon Revolution’s bold international expansion plans are apparent, aligning with a strategic intent to be nearer to its OEM customers and suppliers, particularly in North America. This proximity, combined with reduced labour and shipping costs, positions the Megaline as a model for offshore production, facilitating deeper market penetration. Concurrently, the company will maintain its Waurn Ponds, Geelong headquarters as an ‘R&D Powerhouse’ as well as continuing to expand its manufacturing site.