From F1 track to elite hatchback: the carbon fibre revolution

Slovak firm c2i aims to provide cheap lightweight structures for motor industry

Like many Formula 1 innovations, the technology has trickled downstream. Photograph: David Loh/Reuters

Like many Formula 1 innovations, the technology has trickled downstream. Photograph: David Loh/Reuters

 

When it comes to performance car design, weight is everything. The heavier the vehicle, the slower the speed, the more fuel it consumes.

The weight-speed-fuel conundrum is something designers have been grappling with for decades.

Formula 1 racing cars, for example, used to be made of the same sort of materials as road cars – steel, aluminium and other metals.

However, in the early 1980s McLaren designer John Barnard came up with the idea of creating a carbon fibre racing car.

The material is lighter than aluminium but stronger than steel, making it potentially faster and more fuel efficient.

Sceptics used to refer to it as “black plastic”, fearing it would disintegrate on impact.

However, when F1 driver John Watson stepped out of his carbon fibre McLaren unhurt after spinning out in the 1981 Monza Grand Prix, he became an instant advert for the new technology. Now it’s the industry norm.

Like many F1 innovations, the technology has trickled downstream. First, it was used only in super cars, now premium brands such as Porsche, Jaguar and BMW are increasingly using carbon fibre composites to improve driving performance.

The material’s chief drawback is that it can be expensive to make. In F1, the carbon fibre is moulded by hand, an extremely labour intensive process. Now the race is on to industrialise the process for the mass market.This is where Patrick Hessel, founder and chief executive of Slovak firm c2i, comes in.

His company produces a range of carbon fibre parts for the automotive industry: everything from exterior parts – spoilers, splitters and defusers – to interior panels and even structural parts of the chassis. His customers include Porsche, Jaguar, BMW and Audi.

“The disruption element is to automate the process to bring down the costs,” he told The Irish Times at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event in Monaco earlier this month. Hessel was Slovakia’s entry.

Production

One of the main drivers of cost in carbon fibre production is waste. “The big opportunity is to develop technology which is able to produce components automatically while reducing the leftover material.”

But are we likely to see the technology deployed in cheaper, mainstream cars any time soon? A carbon fibre Toyota? “I don’t know, maybe 20-30 years from now, but I don’t think it’s realistic in the next 10 years.”

Cost factor

“In certain areas the cost-benefit of using carbon fibre is simply not there yet.”

That said, demand for his company’s product is soaring. In barely five years, its turnover has grown from €2 million to a projected €25 million this year. Headquartered in the southern Slovakian town of Dunajská Streda, it employs 400 people.

BMW is acknowledged as the world leader in making carbon fibre parts for cars and is the first mainstream manufacturer to have a road car constructed entirely from carbon fibre – its new electric i3 model.

Hessel admits carbon fibre has the potential to be a game changer in the electric car revolution.

Lithium-ion batteries, as well as being expensive, make the vehicle significantly heavier. Carbon fibre can offset the weight, necessitating a smaller battery pack. It makes economic sense for the electric car industry, he says.

Lower emissions

Hessel’s company also supplies the aviation industry. The need for weight reduction is even higher here than in the automotive sector. Every 1kg less in weight is worth thousands of euros to manufacturers.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350 use carbon fibre composites – where the carbon is embedded in plastic – to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft. C2i is already making seats and interior panelling components for Boeing and Airbus, with the larger wing and fuselage parts still produced inhouse.

While aerospace carbon fibre isn’t growing as quickly as its automotive equivalent, the contracts are bigger and therefore present bigger opportunities for the company, says Hessel.

Either way, the chief aim is high-volume automation, which will drive down the cost of production.