Fiberforge Lightens Up Car Manufacturing  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Fast Company has an discussion with Amory Lovins and FiberForge CEO Jon Fox-Rubin about the benefits of making cars using strong, lightweight materials - In an Intense Time for Hybrids and EVs, Fiberforge Lightens Up.

Amory Lovins: CEO & Co-Founder of Rocky Mountain Institute: A typical car today uses everyday a 100 times its weight in ancient plants inefficiently converted into gasoline. What happens to that fuel energy when it goes into your tank, 7/8th of it gets lost before it even gets to the wheels, of the 1/8th that gets to the wheels half of that either heats the air that your pushing aside or heats the tire and road. Only the last 6% of the fuel energy actually accelerates the car and then heats the breaks when you stop. And yet 95% of the mass you’re accelerating is the car not the driver, so 6% of 5%, that's about 0.3%, of the fuel energy ends up moving the driver. This is not very gratifying after 120 something years devoted to engineering effort.

Jon Fox-Rubin: President & CEO Fiberforge: Anything that needs to be moved from Point A to Point B would use less fuel and less energy to accelerate it, move it and decelerate it if it were lighter. And that’s really where the Fiberforge process is aimed at creating affordable structures that are lighter in weight.

Amory: We use carbon composites in military and aerospace where cost is almost no object, it's worth $700 present value to take a lb out of an airplane so they're willing to pay a lot to do that. But to move into automating you need to make these composite structures in a thousand times higher volume and lower cost then now.

Jon: Our main goal for any particular market is really affordability. And so the way we do that is we try to automate the process and turn the carbon fiber into a finished product that can be stamped, just like a steel part today. In an automobile you can stamp a thermoplastic tailored blank that’s made by the Fiberforge process.

The parts are typically designed in industry standard CAD tools, computer aided design tools designed for composites in the 3-D shape they're intended to be, and then we take that and flatten it into a 2-D shape and translate that into a Cad-Cam system. So computer aided design, computer aided manufacturing software system that makes the tool path for the tailored blank. That is the automatic layout system that makes the tailored blank. What you're seeing is a motion table that's moving XY, and rotates under a fixed head that’s part of our patented process. And it's laying up the tape a strip at a time next to one another. And we can layup a blank on the order of a few minutes.

Amory: This has 14 layers that are laid down kind of like plywood with carbon fibers pointing in different directions so you get the strength in the directions you want and not otherwise. And then since this is thermoplastic you can heat it up until it softens, stick it on a hot dye and mold it into the shape you want.

Jon: The heater heats the blank with infrared energy and once the resin is fully molded it shuttles it into the system and then essentially it gets compressed and frozen in place.

Amory: You end up with an amazingly strong material; this particular one is tougher than titanium, and really stiff as you can tell from the sound. So plastics have changed since The Graduate. And you can make this in thirty or sixty seconds and stamp out the parts just like steel, except you need about 10 or 20 times fewer parts to make the auto body, the parts snap precisely together for gluing, no hoist no jigs no robots no welders. And lay color in the mold you can make whatever color you want so you get rid of the paint shop, that's another half-billion dollar investment. So very different way to make cars, it's what's called a disruptive technology. Of course it's smart for automakers to adopt something like that right away before their competitors do and sell them their steel stamping equipment to slow them down.

Jon: I think the first automaker that really gets serious about light weighting and either licenses our technology or comes up with its own competitive technology will really own a key piece of the next generation of transportation.

Amory: An automaker will be smart to spend its own money making the cars lighter rather than try and make the fuel cells cheaper and tanks smaller. You'll get to the same place but with much less time, money and risk.


Amory has been talking this technology for a while.

Why has it not been taken up by any manufacturer? Is it just that no one can see a route to "affordable"?

I guess the combination of cheap oil and immature technology has made it unviable.

As the technology improves (and oil gets more expensive) the economics should eventually reach a tipping point.

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