Composites in the automotive industry


Most composite components today are exterior body parts, hoods, bonnets etc. Engine- and transmission applications are rare, but at the Geneva Motor show in March this year, Königsegg showed an engine with numerous carbon fiber parts.

The use of composites has revolutionized entire industries, including aerospace, marine & electrical. Now, it’s the automotive industry’s turn. This is an interesting area that we will try to cover with trends and discussions. You are welcome to participate with your findings, questions and comments!

Today, the use of composites is mostly found in racing and luxury cars, due to the need of reduced weight for race cars and performance and image for luxury cars. Lamborghini, Corvette and Lotus are often mentioned in conjunction with composites.

However, other automotive segments are beginning to use carbon reinforced carbon as well, too. Europe, North America and Japan have the highest penetration of composites in entry-level and mid-range cars. As fuel costs continue to increase, most motorists see that a higher investment in a lower weight car will soon pay for itself in the amount of gas consumed. With this in mind, many car companies (for example, BMW) have entered high level agreements with carbon fiber material producers, and are beginning major investments in their processes to support composite manufacturing.

The chassis typically accounts for 25 pereent of the total car weight. By using composite, the weight of the chassis can be reduced by 50 percent without any reduction to the strength or stiffness. Due to the size and the machining challenges, producing a chassis is today very expensive. JEC Composites expects that large series of composite chassis will take off by 2020 at the earliest. Exterior parts are easier to produce, but represent a less weight reduction opportunity.

Another key barrier to the use of carbon-based composites in the automotive industry is the difficulty in recycling the materials. In the aerospace industry, where relatively few parts are produced, and the lifecycle is long, this is not an issue. However, with the numbers of cars being far greater, and the expected lifetime shorter, manufacturers will be expected to consider recycling and disposal of all materials used in the cars.

“We see composites in automotive industry as a challenge in different areas of machining,” says Eleanor Merson, Research & Development Manager, at the Sandvik Coromant Application center in Sheffield, U.K. “While drilling is very big in aerospace, we expect demand to grow for trimming operations for automotive. In aerospace, the emphasis is very much on quality, whereas in automotive, cost is much more critical.”

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