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Preparing for Carbon Fiber

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The prominence of carbon fiber is on the rise within vehicle designs, and more and more training courses are being developed to prepare repairers for the material. The trend is expected to continually increase, and it could drive big changes in the way shops work, says Scott VanHulle, industry technical support coordinator for I-CAR.

Carbon fiber composite structures entirely change procedural strategies, he says. It’s a whole new mindset toward damage analysis, and significantly alters processes to identify, diagnose and repair damage.

“As the technology becomes more prevalent, the collision repair industry will need to adapt and learn new skills they’ve never had to learn before. It’s a whole new material that’s totally different from anything we’ve ever dealt with in the past,” VanHulle says. “A lack of proactive preparation will lead to a lot of headaches and issues at your facility.”

Carbon fiber repair isn’t something that all shops need to be trained and outfitted for immediately, but it will eventually become a necessary practice. Carbon fiber will gradually be more common on everyday vehicles because the material is becoming less expensive and more viable to produce.

In fact, use of carbon fiber material in the automotive industry is projected to increase 10–15 percent annually through 2022, according to estimates from CompositesWorld. In addition, data from Composites Forecasts and Consulting predict that the amount of finished carbon fiber components manufactured for the automotive industry will increase from 13 million pounds in 2012 to 100 million pounds by 2022.

Seeping Into High Production

Today, carbon fiber is predominantly found in structural and outer components of racecars and exotic, low-production vehicle makes, such as Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren. But VanHulle says other auto manufacturers have identified the material as a strategy to make stronger, lighter-weight vehicles, and have started using the composite to achieve higher crash ratings and meet aggressive 54.5-mpg fuel efficiency standards that will be required by 2025.

The trend has already trickled to manufacturers of slightly higher production luxury vehicles. General Motors’ new Corvette model and several late Mercedes-Benz models are produced with various carbon fiber exterior components, such as rocker panels, deck lids, hoods, fenders and spoilers. And BMW’s i3 and i8 models include full carbon fiber passenger cells, which VanHulle says eventually will be present in “all of the company’s vehicles in some manner in the near future.”

“This is coming. Just because it’s currently on high-end cars doesn’t mean you’re never going to see it on a Honda Accord or any other vehicle. Once the high-end manufacturers figure out how to make it cheaper and more affordable, it will trickle down into everyday drivers,” VanHulle says. “Most of the vehicle manufacturers have been looking into this technology really hard.”

Source: Composites Forecasts and Consulting

Operational Adjustment

Shops need to stay in the know because carbon fiber advances will have a huge impact on operations, says Kye Yeung, owner of European Motor Car Works Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., a shop that went through intensive carbon fiber training overseas as part of Aston Martin’s certification program. It requires a whole new set of training on several unique repair processes, methods, techniques, and damage analysis considerations, along with a host of new tools, equipment and materials to do the work.

VanHulle says carbon fiber repair also comes with a few safety issues that repairers must take precautions against, such as electrical shorts and galvanic corrosion of other metals in the shop.

And repairs on the composite can also be more involved, difficult and time-consuming compared to other metals due to the layers of fiber webbing and infused resin, Yeung says.

Yeung estimates the investment to become fully outfitted for carbon fiber repair is roughly $30,000 to acquire the necessary tools and equipment, which includes several items such as a clean room, dust extraction system, hot bonder composite repair system, and specialized diagnostic tools. It’s a good idea to start preparing slowly, but don’t dive in headfirst before you really need to.

“Manufacturers are gravitating toward carbon fiber. Certain shops will be able to [repair] it, and other shops will have to turn it away. It will be similar to the aluminum issues the industry is dealing with today,” Yeung says. “Whether or not you have the right training and equipment will determine whether you can keep the work in-house.” 

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