Carbon Fibre for Body Panels and Body Shell in the Car Industry

26 April 2001

In the attempt to apply to large-scale production some of the technological advances achieved by F1 auto-makers in the field of new materials, few European and American car manufacturers are seriously investigating and investing in body panels and body shells made entirely from carbon fibre.

Major auto-makers in Europe and in the USA are presently working on carbon fibre reinforced plastic in order to replace traditional steel or recent aluminium body shells. This possibility was inconceivable until recently because large-scale production required considerable investment that needed to be offset by significant output, while carbon fibre shells were essentially niche products.

Materials alternative to alloys were tested, namely fibreglass which proved different in weight and volume from carbon and failed to satisfy the technical requirements.

As a result, attention turned to carbon fibre as an interesting and innovative material. A fabric with a higher mechanical resistance than fibreglass and a lighter weight than alloys, carbon fibre could open the door to the manufacture of structural parts that would improve car performance.

The feasibility study, developed by Cannon Tecnos, led to the production of some prototypes of preforms made out of carbon fibre.In partial synchronisation with the prototype preparation phase, a line was built for the production of preforms from a carbon fibre fabric to be injected with epoxy resin into a closed mould (RTM).This preforming/closed mould injection process was the attempt to turn an essentially manual and traditionally artisanal activity into an industrial process.

In Formula One and also in some aircraft applications the process to build a carbon fibre reinforced part is still highly labour intensive and requires manual lay up of the layers.Carbon fibre preforming, under the name of Cannon Compotec Preforming technology, has been a proven technology available to the industry since few years.

Carbon fibre recent cost reduction has made this process economically more competitive than those traditionally used in the car industry. Despite the cost per kilo of carbon fibre is much higher than that of steel or aluminium, to set up a production equipment for the production of carbon fibre body panels and body shells requires a smaller investment than for moulds and lines used in metal stamping and welding. Considering that the price of carbon fibre is definitely set to go down, it will not be too long before the opportunity materialises to manufacture carbon fibre body panels and chassis for new car models (even for only 10 to 20,000 units).

In that case, there would no longer be the need to share out investment among frames for different car models as presently done more and more frequently.

Cannon Tecnos has been operating in the glassfibre preforming business for more than a decade with its Cannon Compotec Preforming technology and its expertise has been valuable in the design and construction of the new lines for carbon fibre.

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