Shaving pounds and even ounces off new vehicles helps to improve performance while simultaneously boosting fuel economy. While materials like aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber are both strong and light, their inherently high cost has generally excluded or limited their use in mainstream vehicles.

The goal of automakers worldwide is to create a more cost-effective method of producing carbon fiber, as the material’s strength-to-weight ratio makes it nearly ideal for automotive use. While companies like Lamborghini have developed less-expensive carbon composites, they’re still not “affordable” by mass production standards.

Ford has partnered with Aachen University, Henkel, Evonik, IKV (the Institute of Plastics Processing), Composite Impulse and Toho Tenax under an umbrella project called Hightech.NRW, which ultimately seeks to develop new ways to make carbon fiber.

The NRW in the project name comes from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which began funding the effort in 2010. Its specific goals are five-fold:

  • Develop a cost-effective method for carbon fiber panel production that will work with existing manufacturing processes,
  • Reduce individual component production times,
  • Reduce finishing work required,
  • Meet requirements for paint application,
  • Reduce weight of component by 50-percent (compared to conventional parts)

The first example of the group’s effort, a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) hood for a Ford Focus, was shown at a recent Composites Europe event. The hood is less than half the weight of a conventional steel component, yet meets all the requirements for strength, dent resistance, crash protection and pedestrian impact safety.

Perhaps even more significant is that the hood’s manufacturing process is fast enough to be implemented on a production line, but that doesn’t mean CFRP body panels will be introduced into Ford’s products any time soon.

In the words of Ford research engineer Inga Wehmeyer, “Customers... should not expect to see carbon fiber-bodied examples on sale in the near future, but the techniques we have refined and developed for the prototype Focus bonnet could be transferred to higher volume applications at a later date.”