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Demand surges for carbon-fibre wheels

Market force: Global demand for carbon-fibre wheels is much bigger than Carbon Revolution’s capacity of 50,000 wheels because the company has dramatically reduced costs.

Carbon Revolution has more orders to announce and is looking to expand capacity

General News logo24 May 2016

By IAN PORTER

THE potential market for carbon-fibre wheels is expanding rapidly thanks to the progress Geelong-based Carbon Revolution has made in reducing production costs.

As a result, the company’s directors are now considering how to increase production even before the company’s first plant, located on the Waurn Ponds campus of Deakin University, has reached its designed production capacity.

“Contracts for just 15,000 cars a year would fill Carbon Revolution’s plant, but the gains being made in costs mean the potential market is growing all the time,” Carbon Revolution chief executive Jake Dingle told GoAuto.

The market size is many times greater than the 50,000 units the company’s new plant would be able to produce when it reaches its designed capacity.

Before the new plant opened incorporating the latest developments in the company’s production process, Carbon Revolution was selling wheels for high-performance sportscars in the aftermarket at around $15,000 for a set of four.

These wheels were produced using labour-intensive production processes that are being phased out as the company improves mechanisation and automation processes to speed cycle times and output.

At present the new plant, which opened late in 2014, has won two contracts awarded by the Ford Motor Company, both for relatively low-volume models: the Mustang Shelby GT350R and the Ford GT supercar. The Ford GT contract was confirmed last week.

The two Ford deals are the first announced contracts Carbon Revolution has won from a car manufacturer, but the company is talking to many other car-makers about the potential of using carbon-fibre wheels and will not comment on other programs that are awarded but yet to be publicly announced.

“We are dealing with a massive automotive market, and there’s the aerospace and industrial markets beyond that. That is why we are running so hard,” Mr Dingle said.

Carbon Revolution directors are already considering how to increase production capacity in the medium term, although Mr Dingle said there were currently no capacity constraints at the new plant.

“We can continue expanding the plant if we need to. We have an agreement with Deakin (University) to double the size of the plant if and when we need to,” he said.

80 center imageLeft: Carbon Revolution chief executive Jake Dingle. “In the short term we are driving the technology very aggressively on both the product and process fronts, so we will be able to produce more wheels per unit of factory space.

“It’s essential to have production where you also do your research and development. There is a huge value in their being co-located. That way the expertise and development capacity stays here.” However, the envisaged demand as production costs come down means that larger plants may have to be built overseas, closer to the assembly plants of Carbon Revolution’s customers.

It is not yet clear how these larger plants would be financed or which companies would be partners in those projects. But Mr Dingle said the Carbon Revolution board would prefer the company owned or was at least a significant equity partner in these production facilities rather than simply entering a technology licencing arrangement.

The biggest shareholder in Carbon Revolution is the Swiss company Ronal, which has a 30 per cent stake. Ronal makes 19 million alloy wheels a year and is the largest supplier of alloy wheels to European car-makers.

Mr Dingle said the progress Carbon Revolution had made in reducing production costs means that carbon-fibre wheels are now within reach for many more car companies.

“The great thing about being in the early stages of development in a disruptive technology is that the gains you can make are not small percentage gains,” he said.

“Cycle times are already a quarter of what they were when we started and we have halved our production costs in the past two years.” The company was also working on improving the raw materials it uses in its wheels in a bid to further improve their performance and their cost-competitiveness.

This included reducing the weight of the wheels even further.

“We are working with the CSIRO’s polymer division and a number of global chemical companies on new resins and with Carbon Nexus to develop new materials to use in our wheels,” Mr Dingle said.

“The new resins we are developing with CSIRO and others will help us achieve higher performance both in our processes and in product performance.

“This means we will be able to continue to make stronger and lighter wheels as we go forward, and they’ll be more cost effective.” Carbon Nexus is one of only a few independent developers of carbon fibres and Carbon Revolution is collaborating closely on new fibres.

The wheel-maker is also aiming to service much larger segments of the vehicle market than just sportscars and high-performance versions of production models.

While the wheels enhance the acceleration, handling and steering response of sportscars, they offer crucial advantages to less exotic, higher-volume models.

A weight saving of 30 or 40 kilograms on a regular production model not only brings the performance benefits, it also translates into lower fuel consumption, lower carbon emissions and lower taxes on the car owner in markets where taxes are related to fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

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