In attempting to define the state of composites within the UK’s automotive sector it is tempting to concentrate on the highly successful motorsport industry, but there are capabilities and opportunities that exist far beyond this that will serve the industry well as it picks up, as Dr Neil Calder reports.
The UK has some world class R&D capability in advanced composites that has been laid down carefully over many years and is now accessible to the automotive engineering sector. This, after all, is the country which spearheaded the development of the first high modulus carbon fibres for defence purposes at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the mid-1960s. We also have had some very significant capability in volume automotive production, but the general opinion is that this is more historic than current.
There are a significant number of organisations in the high performance end of the automotive business, producing low numbers at high cost. The many F1 engineering teams arrayed along the M4 corridor have taken much of the limelight and are the obvious high point to define the UK’s capability. This is only the tip of the iceberg however, as although the value is high, the volume in industrial terms is low. You can always have the performance if you are prepared to pay McLaren MP4-12C prices for it. Whilst it is possible to describe this part of the industry as small but perfectly formed, there are other significant companies in high performance composites driving innovation at the point where the aerospace and automotive supply chains coincide.
The big picture in the automotive sector is pointing to a much greater use of advanced composites by the global OEMs. Many observers of the market trends within composites have seen the wind of change starting to blow from giants such as BMW. Its acquisition of joint capability with composite material supplier SGL though a joint venture has secured it a reliable source of raw carbon fibre production which further serves to validate the prediction that the major automotive producers are poised to derive some very significant benefits from this technology. Similarly, the Japanese material producer Teijin and General Motors are visibly aligning their business interests to provide affordable high performance materials within the body structure supply chain. Mercedes is following a similar path with Toray, and will begin to use carbon fibre structures in its new SL model from 2012.
Encompassing visible examples like the BMW production facility for its M3 carbon roof structure and Bentley’s development work in discontinuous fibre performing (DCFP), there has been a steady rise in automotive applications for advanced composite structures. It only takes a single sizeable component on a volume automobile to make this the start of an exponential increase. The UK level of activity in automotive composites was estimated at £63m in a recent UKTI sector study and this was expected rather conservatively to rise to just over £100m by 2015. However, this figure doesn’t consider any step changes in the use of composites within the sector.
The big European vehicle producers are now looking for new composites manufacturing capability to satisfy their higher volume applications. There are no preconceptions or prejudices regarding where this capability comes from as long as it will be accessible within Europe. The production techniques required for this type of manufacturing are going to be heavily dependent upon automation, so it is going to be linked to the ability to invest in equipment and capacity and with a relative insensitivity to labour rates.
This ability to invest in a supply chain against a strategic global opportunity is an inherent weak point of UK business generally. A short-term horizon on easy returns on investment is endemic within our much vaunted financial and banking sector. Unlike the situation which exists in much of the rest of Europe, the City has never really grasped the concept of value creation through manufacturing. The UK Government is now waking up to the opportunities for reinforcing some of our strengths in areas of manufacturing though, and it will be interesting to see how this line of business will be played out. Although the place of Government here is to support rather than to create, it is industry that has to drive the commercial solution forward.
We have a good indigenous capability for the engineering of automotive products which supports an industry worth some £10bn/year. The recent BIS New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team report recognises this, and technology capability development exercises such as the Low Carbon Vehicle work by the Technology Strategy Board underpins this for future decades.
The new area of low carbon vehicles, which is underpinned by more strategic R&D investment, is going to provide a platform for the highly agile capability that the UK has in composites. The dynamic of this sector is likely to favour smaller producers and the UK already has a number of these. As electric and hybrid drive vehicle designs are more critically mass sensitive than internal combustion powered vehicles, there is a very strong need for lightweighting within the body structure.
Low weight, high volume
As an example, Axon Automotive, which has won this year’s JEC Innovation Award in the automotive category, has developed a carbon fibre composite system which weighs in at 50kg for a city car body structure, delivering high strength and stiffness whilst retaining a low weight and great tailorability at an affordable cost. The patented beam design system comprises a braided carbon fibre skin over a foam core, formed using closed dies and infused with resin from Scott Bader. The resin system used is Crestapol 1250, a urethane acrylate resin specially developed for use in carbon fibre laminates but to be handled in the same manner as polymer resins for glass fibre. The composite material technology is configured to enable rapid manufacturing possibilities, meaning that production flow is more in the realm of sheet moulding compound as a high volume process.
Axon has recently emerged from within the Scott Bader Innovation Centre operated in Northampton by Oxford Innovations and this close relationship has enabled many of the developments on which this vehicle is based.
With around one hundredth of the capital investment required for steel body structures, this may provide the entry point into the higher volume auto applications and an opportunity to go beyond ‘black metal’. This low entry barrier into the auto sector, in respect of the capital investment required and also of the good accessibility of design, materials and processing knowledge has allowed an increasing number of small companies to enter the market and some measure of commercial success in these ventures would bring about a situation of many independent car marques in this country in a manner not seen since prior to the amalgamations which led to the British Motor Company in the mid-1960s.