Fellowship leads to step-change preforming technology

By using Carbon Revolution wheels, Ferrari was able to save an additional 40% in weight on its wheels alone.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.

Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show on 6 March 2018, Ferrari’s remarkable 488 Pista featured a set of optional 20-inch carbon fibre wheels made by Carbon Revolution in Geelong. The beautiful aerodynamically efficient supercar was already 91kg lighter than its predecessors, and by using Carbon Revolution wheels, Ferrari was able to save an additional 40% in weight on its wheels alone.

So what is the secret of a company that ascended from a start-up in a Geelong garage a mere 12 years ago, to supplying “the most technically advanced wheel on the planet” to global car makers like Ford and Ferrari – all of it achieved against the backdrop of a cost sensitive and conservative supply chain?

In the case of Ferrari, the marketplace requirements for an optional wheel on a road-going supercar are Herculean. The 488 Pista is said to have a top-speed of 340 km/h; accelerating from 0–100 km/h in 2.85 seconds 0–200 km/h in 7.6 seconds. The wheel is attached to a vehicle that weighs just over 1.5 tonnes. The wheel takes all the forces from the road through the tyre and into the car structure. It must handle hundreds of horsepower from the drivetrain and sustain extreme forces from hitting potholes and curbs. Inside the wheel sits a brake disc and calipers, which can reach temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, just a few centimetres from the wheel.

To deal with this level of extreme fatigue over a lifespan of more than 300,000 kilometres, the wheel needs a lightweight, fibre and polymer-based carbon fibre composite component that is precision engineered and of aerospace quality.

Dr Tim Corbett, an Engineering and Doctoral (PhD) graduate of Deakin University and a foundation employee of Carbon Revolution, believes that the company’s secrets to success are its investment in continuous research and development in step change efficiency technologies, global partnerships, an active patent strategy …and testing, testing and more testing…

Technical Specialist with Carbon Revolution, Tim was awarded an International Specialised Skills Institute (ISS Institute) Fellowship in 2016 to examine and understand state-of-the-art RTM systems for 3D parts, direct tow handling and fibre placement, novel preforming technologies, as well as carbon fibre conversion processes used in the advanced manufacturing R&D institutions in Europe.

Prior to his Fellowship, Tim had been working on a revolutionary new concept for preforming dry carbon fibre material. His quest was to unlock very rapid tooling throughput, injection and cure cycle times, without losing surface quality on all moulded surfaces, as well as to address resin shrinkage through thick section composites, particularly where those sections lie perpendicular to the mould closing axis. Another area of investigation was to understand and benchmark resin richness in complex 3D structures that can result from various different preforming technologies. Resin richness, he notes, are pockets of a laminate in concave areas that are not properly filled with fibre. He found that many preforming processes were surprisingly susceptible to resin richness, particularly in challenging parts. Tim’s findings drove fundamental design decisions about this bespoke invention, which is now a principle process in manufacturing the company’s carbon fibre wheels. The innovative new preforming machine is in the genre of additive manufacturing and delivers carbon fibre material (kgs per hour) at a capital efficiency far better than competing preform technologies. Importantly, the technology has resulted in a ~1kg reduction in wheel mass over the company’s pre-existing design.

“One of my conclusions after examining all that was on offer in Europe, was that to produce consistent, repeatable, dimensionally accurate, high-quality carbon fibre automotive components with precisely finished surface aesthetics we had to develop our own technology and build our own machines”, explained Tim. “While this wasn’t the cheapest or fastest route to market, it was the surest for tooling optimisation and for reducing material usage and cycle times.”

During its 12 year journey, Carbon Revolution was able to attract funding to industrialise and automate its unique processes as well as fuel its expansion. Local private investors, Acorn Capital, global wheelmaker Ronal AG of Switzerland, Deakin University and the federal Clean Energy Finance Corporation have supported the company thus far.

An ASX listing has been mooted “inside a year” that will propel Carbon Revolution to the next level of development The company has announced a $100 million expansion of its Waurn Ponds manufacturing facility, which will eventually add 500 workers to the payroll. The expansion adds 7000 square metres to Carbon Revolution’s 3000m² footprint and will allow the company to lift its output from 10,000 wheels a year to half a million wheels per year in the long term.

One consequence of the company’s success is competition from rival carbon fibre wheel technologies. Tim believes the company is fortified by developing its own manufacturing processes and equipment and owning its own IP. Indeed, Carbon Revolution currently has 41 patents covering its manufacturing processes and designs, with another 14 pending.

It is safe to speculate that there will always be markets for automotive components that make a car go faster. Reducing unsprung mass helps a car’s suspension work more effectively. Reducing rotating mass will make the car accelerate and stop faster and conversely reduce fuel consumption. All this makes the future promising for lightweight carbon fibre automotive components with beautiful finished surface aesthetics.

Like the legendary style of the Ferrari brand, Australia’s own Carbon Revolution’s is on the rise and capturing attention all over the world.

Carbon Revolution’s 3000m² Waurn Ponds manufacturing facility is being expanded by 7,000m² to allow the company to lift its output from 10,000 wheels a year to half a million wheels per year in the long term.

Further information on the International Specialised Skills Institute and its Fellowships can be found at http://www.issinstitute.org.