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Aussie carbon-fibre wheel supplier takes fight up to alloy

Volume matters: Carbon Revolution has its sights set on making its unique carbon-fibre wheels a viable alternative to alloy, supplying high-volume cars across the globe.

Carbon Revolution to cut production costs to compete with global alloy wheel market

General News logo12 Sep 2014

By IAN PORTER

EMERGING Geelong wheel producer Carbon Revolution is aiming to cut the cost of making its world-first one-piece carbon-fibre wheels so they can be fitted to high-volume cars in the place of cast aluminium wheels.

Carbon Revolution’s CR9 wheels have made a big impact in the aftermarket, where they are being fitted to Porsche 911s and other high-end sportscars.

But these early wheels were relatively labour-intensive and cost around $15,000 for a set of four, which is too expensive to fit to mass-production models.

Carbon Revolution chief executive Jake Dingle told GoAuto that most of the development work at the company’s operation at the Geelong suburb of Waurn Ponds was aimed at streamlining the manufacturing process and dramatically reducing production costs.

“Carbon Revolution is not just about supplying high-performance wheels for high-end sportscars – it’s about ultimately servicing the transport market, the transport industries,” he said.

“We have always wanted to be a high-volume supplier.” Mr Dingle said the initial production system required a lot of manual labour to assemble around 200 parts or processes in each wheel, which meant production was labour-intensive and expensive.

“It’s a very complex process. There are different elements, from cutting and handling the carbon-fibre for the layup, the resin injection and then finishing the wheels once they are out of the mould,” he said.

“Basically, with any new process, you start manual and then you move to a mechanised process. You develop machines to do it with people managing the machines, and then you move gradually to automation.” As with manufacturing processes in other industries, the ultimate aim is to reduce human intervention to as low a level as possible.

“Full automation is the longer-term goal, with skilled operators supervising the manufacturing machines, which can produce high quality wheels efficiently and reliably,” Mr Dingle said.

Mr Dingle said the company had hired people with extensive manufacturing experience with companies such as Bosch, PBR and Chassis Brakes International (CBI) to help refine its production processes.

“They don’t (necessarily) come with knowledge of composites, but they do have deep knowledge about how to produce high-volume automotive components for OEM requirements,” he said.

“We have also brought in people from Boeing, so we are working with a hybrid of best practice automotive component manufacturing and best practice aerospace component manufacturing.” Carbon Revolution has already hired some displaced workers from shrinking manufacturing operations around Geelong, giving it a readymade workforce of skilled and motivated people.

The Carbon Revolution board was also strengthened earlier this year with the appointment of former Futuris Automotive chairman Bruce Griffiths.

Mr Dingle said the 12 car-makers around the world that are testing or using Carbon Revolution wheels needed to be convinced that production of carbon-fibre products could be moved past the stage where workers had to individually place each piece of carbon-fibre material into the mould.

Carbon Revolution has not only designed its own computational modelling tools to help design the wheels, it has also mechanised the assembly of the carbon-fibre material in the mould.

The finite element modelling tools specifically address the challenge of designing products that are made with fibrous materials, whereas existing modelling tools only do rigid materials like metal.

The modelling tools help the wheel designers find the optimal way for the carbon-fibre material to be layered into the mould and how much to use.

“Fibrous materials are very complex. They are directional. You are dealing with fibres that are really strong in tension but not in any other direction,” Mr Dingle said.

“You can’t push them, you can’t do anything other than pull them. So our modelling takes account of that, fibre by fibre and layer by layer.

“Then it takes account of the adhesion between the fibres and the resin. It’s a hugely complex combination of layers in the wheels to get all those load paths right.” Mr Dingle said the hardest part of refining the production process was moving from the manual system to a mechanised system.

“Once you have developed a machine that can do the movements then, later on, it’ s a lot easier to automate those. You turn handles into servo motors, that sort of thing,” he said.

“The next step is then automating that mechanisation. There are elements of our process that are now automated, there are elements that are mechanised, and we still have some manual steps, but that is stuff that we are working through.

“For example, the resin handling system is pretty much fully automated now. And the cutting of the carbon-fibre is automated with the CNC (computer numerical control) cutter using CAD (computer aided design) data files.” Mr Dingle said that although the carbon-fibre and polymer or resin were more expensive than aluminium, the automation and some advantages that carbon-fibre wheels have over alloy wheels would help make costs competitive in the long run.

Carbon Revolution’s production system will need a lot less capital investment compared to aluminium wheels, which means the factory is cheaper.

For instance, there is no need for furnaces to melt aluminium and, crucially, there is no need for machining after the carbon-fibre wheel comes out of the mould.

“The thing with our part is, when it comes out of the mould it is perfectly round and exactly to tolerance, so there is none of the machining needed to create the final shape of an aluminium wheel,” Mr Dingle said.

“The only machining is the holes that you drill into it (for the wheel studs).

“So, whilst our raw materials are more expensive and, at the moment, our labour costs are much higher, everything downstream of the moulding actually requires fewer resources.” Looking forward to when Carbon Revolution will be making wheels for aeroplanes and trucks, Mr Dingle said that even painting a carbon-fibre wheel was cheaper.

He said it was a simple process to prepare polymer for painting, whereas aluminium wheels need to be etched with several chemicals.

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