As materials go, carbon fiber has an ideal blend of high strength and low weight. Until recently, it’s also had an astronomically high price tag, thanks in part to the labor intensive manufacturing process.
Traditionally, carbon fiber components are made by layering sheets of carbon fiber cloth in between layers of resin in a mold. An autoclave then uses heat and pressure to cure the part and ensure its strength; any error in the manufacturing process, or flaw in the component , and the part is generally scrapped. Whether you’re building a monocoque chassis for a race car or wing assemblies for fighter aircraft, component failure isn’t an option and cost isn’t an object.
The lengthy manufacturing process and its associated cost have kept carbon fiber from going mainstream. A new manufacturing process has been developed by the Advanced Composite Structures Laboratory at University of Washington, and it may greatly accelerate the use of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing. Called “forged composites,” the new materials are nearly as strong as conventional carbon fiber components, but cost far less to produce.
In forged composites, short pieces of carbon fiber thread are mixed with resin, placed into a heated mold and then cured under high pressure. The new process can produce a part in as little as three minutes, greatly reducing the manufacturing time compared to traditional carbon fiber components.
The down side? Forged composites lack the sexy appearance of their traditional carbon fiber equivalents, making forged composite components more suitable for use out of sight. They lack some of the overall strength of carbon fiber components, but can be molded to work across a wide variety of applications.
Callaway Golf is currently using forged composites to build golf club heads, and Lamborghini used forged composites in the Sesto Elemento’s monocoque, front and rear structures, interior components and even body panels. The material’s cost is expected to fall even further as production becomes commonplace.
Maybe a sub-1,800 pound, next-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata is possible after all.