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Smart plant to revolutionise carbon wheels
Carbon Revolutions Mega-Line facility to nearly double production capacity
1 Feb 2022
By MATT BROGAN
CARBON REVOLUTION will nearly double its production capacity when the Geelong based carbon fibre wheel producer’s new Mega-Line assembly facility goes online.
The state-of-the-art automated facility combines advanced machine learning and robotics with VR and AI technologies to improve production flow and operational efficiency in what the high-tech wheel manufacturer says is a first of its kind factory in Australia.
The use of cyber-physical production facilities will allow Carbon Revolution to become even more efficient and productive – and less wasteful – than before.
The Mega-Line facility will utilise a network of digitally connected automated production systems to ensure its wheels are produced to the highest possible quality and in higher volumes than was previously possible.
“The Mega-Line is expected to provide a step change in production scale and economics that will enable the company to deliver larger volume programs to a broader cross-section of the market,” Carbon Revolution CEO Jake Dingle explained.
“We have taken great steps to automate our production process since we have founded the business. Many of these new automated processes have been iterated over the past few years, but the Mega-Line integrates them, in combination with a more automated part flow.
“It will mean a step change in production capacity and cost reductions for Carbon Revolution,” he said.
Mr Dingle explained that the team at Carbon Revolution had worked tirelessly throughout the summer holiday season to ensure the Mega-Line facility was ready to meet increased production demands, including the new five-spoke wheel for the 2022 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (see link below).
“The Christmas break allowed our industrialisation engineers and construction team to make great strides in reorganising the factory for the Mega-Line,” Mr Dingle explained.
“The factory design has already been iterated virtually, which saves us considerable time and cost in having to move or reorganise areas. For example, we were able to use VR technology to optimise placement of tooling for production team members. Some of these changes would have taken months to figure out once installed, which would have reduced efficiency.
“We will continue to develop long-term growth opportunities with the goal of playing a major disruptive role in the automotive wheel industry,” he added.
The Mega-Line upgrade is the second expansion of Carbon Revolution’s production facilities in four years and is expected to almost double the company’s output.
“The Mega-Line fits inside our 10,000m2 facility in Waurn Ponds, but has seen us reconfigure this space for better flow while adding an extra mezzanine level,” Mr Dingle detailed.
“We expanded this facility from 3000m2 to 10,000m2 in 2018, but as new wheel programs and production processes have come online – such as our automated high-pressure moulding stations – we have found ways of integrating these to streamline and optimise production.
“We are also adding new conveyor lines, automated tools and robots to improve throughput. Once fully commissioned, our production capacity will approximately double,” he said, adding that the level of quality and quantity Carbon Revolution could offer its OEM customers would be critical in future.
“It allows us to scale up greatly, while still maintaining the quality that we are renowned for among our OEM customers. Importantly, greater use of AI technology means we can run quality checks for a much larger number of wheels in an automated rather than manual way, which, obviously, is good for efficiency,” he emphasised.
Despite the increase in automation, Mr Dingle said the growing team of highly skilled human operators at Carbon Revolution would continue to play an essential part in the production of the company’s carbon-fibre wheels.
“We are still hiring and will continue to do so,” he insisted.
“The Mega-Line and its Industry 4.0 technology will allow us to scale up and make more wheels with the human resources we currently have – we will still need plenty more manpower, but they will be more highly skilled and interesting roles,” Mr Dingle said.
Founded in 2007, Carbon Revolution industrialised the supply of the world’s first one-piece carbon-fibre wheel to the automotive industry. The company quickly progressed from singular prototypes to designing and manufacturing wheels for OEMs such as Ford, Ferrari and Renault.
The manufacturer – with multiple patents to its name – has six programs in production with three global OEMs, and a further nine programs in development.
“A significant proportion of these new programs involve higher volume platforms and are for electric vehicles with large wheel formats,” Mr Dingle added. “These programs are expected to enter production in CY2023 and CY2024.”
With an increasing number of customers wanting to showcase the carbon-fibre weave of their vehicles’ wheels, Carbon Revolution found it necessary to implement new technologies to ensure the appearance of the wheel was visually uniform.
Mr Dingle said the company’s proprietary Diamond Weave Technology was now one of its more popular selections and one of the many patents the company had pending.
“Over the years we have integrated the design and manufacture of our wheels to ensure better quality over a reduced cycle time for production,” he said.
“An example of this is our proprietary, patent-pending Diamond Weave Technology, which improves the first-time finish of our wheels and allows our customers to show off our signature carbon fibre weave on their vehicles.”
Interestingly, the reduction in cycle time and quality has not come at the expense of the environment.
Waste and energy efficiency in the construction of its carbon-fibre wheels was of critical importance to Carbon Revolution, Mr Dingle said. He explained that, over and above the benefits provided by its Mega-Line facility, the company was also investigating a means of incorporating a greater amount of recycled carbon-fibre material into its new wheels.
“Reducing cycle times and improving throughput certainly improves our energy efficiency and, likewise, we are coming up with new ways to reduce waste throughout our production process. A lot of our new tooling has been optimised to reduce off-cuts and waste material,” he outlined.
“We are also working on ways to re-use this waste material. We are already using recycled carbon fibre material in some elements of our wheels, and we are looking at expanding this. Greater use of AI means we can detect quality issues earlier in the production process, which greatly reduces waste material and cost,” Mr Dingle said.
Beyond these changes, Carbon Revolution is seeking to further reduce its environmental impact in the coming years. Mr Dingle said every element of the business would be scrutinised as the business continued to evolve, as well as the benefits to the fuel economy of vehicles equipped with carbon-fibre wheels and end-of-life efficiencies.
“We are already ISO14001 certified, the international standard for environmental management systems. This means we maintain an environmental impacts and aspect register, with mitigations and improvement plans for all items,” he said.
“We are also in the process of developing an environmental impact plan, including targets for reducing this impact that are suitable for a growing business such as ours. This plan will scrutinise all elements of the business, including raw materials, manufacturing processes, efficiency in use (of the wheels) and end of life.
“The technology of our wheels is, at its core, an efficiency technology. We strive to improve the performance and efficiency of the world’s vehicles, by reducing weight on one of the most impactful parts of a vehicle,” Mr Dingle explained.
He said that an increasing number of electric vehicle producers were showing interest in carbon-fibre wheels for those very reasons. Energy consumption benefits, coupled with reduced noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) properties, were showing great promise for the adoption of Carbon Revolution wheels across several new-energy vehicles.
“Previous research has that shown fuel economy or range extension benefits of up to five per cent are achievable with appropriately designed carbon-fibre wheels. The initial higher cost of our wheels versus conventional metal wheels has meant they were adopted first for performance applications,” Mr Dingle said.
“Now, we are confident that our wheels will be widely adopted globally, improving efficiency in a great number of vehicles and extending their range as the world transitions to an EV future.
“But we’re not satisfied with just that. From a raw materials perspective, we are working with partners who are coming up with new ways to greatly reduce the energy required to create carbon fibre.
“In terms of our factory operations, we’re co-located on the Deakin University Waurn Ponds campus, which means we are connected to the campus’ Renewable Energy Microgrid. Like many businesses we are looking to ensure we achieve 100 per cent renewable power,” he enthused.
The decreased weight of carbon-fibre wheels compared with their aluminium-alloy counterparts – along with the ability to create an aesthetic design that would once have been deemed impossible – is also a drawcard for EV producers.
The resultant improvement in aerodynamic properties of carbon-fibre wheels was yet another factor that many vehicle manufacturers were considering, Mr Dingle said. Wheel-well air turbulence accounts for as much as a quarter of a vehicle’s overall aerodynamic drag…
“We are very excited about the electric future, particularly because our wheels are so well suited to EV applications,” he continued.
“We have previously quantified the benefits of reducing unsprung mass for efficiency in conventional ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles, in terms of improving fuel economy.
“The same can be said about EVs and range extension. There are a number of ways we can improve range, beyond just the 40 to 50 per cent reduction in mass,” he enthused.
“One of these is the ability to produce wheel designs with low aerodynamic drag. These designs may be possible in metal wheels too, but, aluminium wheels with large surface areas tend to be exceedingly heavy, which negates the aerodynamic benefit.
“Carbon-fibre allows us to design and produce very efficient thin aerodynamic structures without incurring a weight penalty (noting that aircraft wings and rotor blades are also made of carbon fibre), which opens up great design flexibility for EV makers,” Mr Dingle detailed.
He said that in addition to increased energy savings, the acoustic properties of carbon-fibre wheels played an important part in attenuating road and tyre noise.
Mr Dingle said Carbon Revolution engineers were able to “tune” a wheel to alter its sound dampening properties, and that this ability was proving particularly popular with luxury OEMs who wished to further reduce EV road noise.
“Another great benefit for EVs is the reduction in NVH that we can achieve with our wheels. The low density, high stiffness and great damping properties of carbon fibre mean that the wheels actually allow less transmission of road noise from the tyres into the cabin,” he reiterated.
“Also, we can tune the resonant frequency of a carbon-fibre wheel design to reduce road noise, by tuning the complex internal structure without altering the wheel’s external geometric design.
“With near silent powertrains, road noise is very noticeable in EVs. Many OEMs are going to great lengths to reduce EV road noise, but many of the solutions they’re putting in place add weight to an already heavy vehicle. Our wheels reduce road noise and, at the same time, offer massive reductions in weight,” Mr Dingle added.
Mr Dingle estimates that there are currently more than 40,000 of its wheels on the road and that the Mega-Line expansion would increase this number considerably.
“An automated facility allows us to scale up and produce a much greater number of wheels without needing to scale up our resources and input costs at the same rate. This will drive down the cost of goods sold and ensure we can deliver strong returns for shareholders,” he concluded.
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