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Preparing Your Shop for Carbon Fiber

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Auto manufacturers are using increased amounts of carbon fiber within new vehicle designs. The material is lighter and stronger than steel, and it’s playing a significant role for OEMs to achieve a 56-mpg fuel efficiency requirement by 2025, says Lou Dorworth of Abaris Training Resources Inc., a Reno, Nev.–based organization that specializes in advanced composite material training.

Dorworth says carbon fiber isn’t a new material, but its high cost has caused it to be mainly used on low-production, exotic vehicle brands. But as carbon fiber becomes less expensive and less difficult to manufacture, the material will soon find its way into more common, high-production models. For example, carbon fiber is already used on the Corvette Z07; the BMW i3 and i8 models are mostly carbon fiber; and Volkswagen is tinkering with a carbon fiber chassis for select vehicles.

“We’re starting to see more and more composite structural applications,” Dorworth says, noting the trend has spurred organizations like Abaris and I-CAR to develop carbon fiber training curriculum for the collision industry. “As we see more high-production cars come out over the next five years, we’re going to see more requirements for technician training in carbon fiber repair.”

He says it’s an area of training every shop should consider to strengthen their service offerings.

“Those with the foresight will want to get their technicians up to speed as quickly as possible to be among the first to offer these capabilities to customers,” Dorworth says. “Body shops that get on the bandwagon early will become the go-to repair providers when consumers need those services.”

Repairing carbon fiber requires a host of new skills, tools, equipment and repair methods that your shop will need to be trained on if carbon fiber work is a business venture you’re planning to pursue. Here’s a primer on the skills and equipment technicians will need to learn to make it happen.

New Information and Processes

Dorworth says carbon fiber has completely different characteristics and properties compared to other vehicle materials due to the incorporation of several layers of webbing and infused resin. It’s very stiff and rigid, and doesn’t have the amount of flexibility that other materials do.

That means repairing the material is significantly different, and it’s necessary to learn a whole new set of challenging repair processes and methods.

Unlike steel and aluminum, the properties of carbon fiber change when the material is bent and shaped, Dorworth says. Technicians must be able to create the correct properties of the material that replicates the quality of the original part. A few new key processes that require significant training include:

  • Mold-making and material-casting
  • Fiber cloth cutting and application
  • Fiber cloth axial orientation
  • Polymer resin application, infusion and curing
  • Vacuum bagging
  • Sealing of the repaired area

“There are some new habits that need to be learned to make sure your shop performs repairs correctly,” Dorworth says. “There are some material control and processing steps that most technicians aren’t familiar with. There’s a significant learning curve.”

Getting Outfitted

Dorworth says becoming fully prepared to perform those processes will require a few new equipment, tool and material additions to your operation—a total investment of roughly $25,000; $30,000 for shops starting from scratch.

Kye Yeung, owner of European Motor Car Works Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., whose technicians recently obtained carbon fiber certification through Aston Martin and Calloway Cars, offers a breakdown of the key items you’ll need.

Clean Room: Shops must have a dedicated space for carbon fiber work to prevent contaminants from floating throughout the shop. The clean room can either be a curtained-off area of the shop floor, or a dedicated room.
Estimated Cost: $2,000–$30,000

Dust Extraction System: Grinding carbon fiber generates fine resin and fiber particles that float in the air, Yeung says. It’s dangerous to inhale—which causes technicians to wear a breathing apparatus—and you need to prevent that from floating throughout the facility.
Estimated Cost: $2,000–$9,500

Electronic Digital Tap Hammer: This is a diagnostic tool used to locate damage on carbon fiber components, which aren’t always visible to the naked eye, Yeung says. The equipment is perfect for detecting delamination, voids and cracks in the vehicle component, and provides users with an electronic reading that illustrates whether a certain area is damaged.
Estimated Cost: $1,500

Hot Bonder Unit: Portable hot bonder units are used to activate and cure resins and adhesives, Yeung says. The machine controls a heating device to heat and cure the resin to a specific OEM recommendation. It’s one of the most expensive pieces of equipment associated with carbon fiber repair.
Estimated Cost: $5,000–$50,000; but typically $10,000–$20,000

Heat Blanket System: This is the heating source that is controlled by the hot bonder unit.This allows for accurate temperature control and curing of the repair area, Yeung says.
Estimated Cost: $250–$1,000

Other heating methods that can be used include heat lamps and hot air guns, Yeung says, which range in cost from $100 to $1,000.

Vacuum Bagging Equipment: Vacuum bagging is a multi-step process used to infuse and cure resin into the carbon fiber.
Estimated Cost: $400–$1,000

Carbon Fiber Tooling: Shops may need to have special caul plates that are the same shape and size as the composite with which it will be used, Yeung says.
Estimated Cost: $50–$500

Freezer: Yeung says there is a form of carbon fiber material called prepreg. It’s a carbon fiber reinforcement material that is preimpregnated with the right amount of resin. This type of material must be kept frozen to extend its shelf life. Prepreg is shipped in dry ice and must be stored in a freezer-type unit at the shop.

“Prepreg is very hard to handle, but some manufacturers think this is the way to go because it guarantees the proper carbon fiber material-to-resin ratio so the repair simulates the original component,” Yeung says.

Hand Tools: Yeung says most of the hand tools that shops already use daily are applicable for carbon fiber repair, such as die grinders, belt sanders, hand grinders and sanding blocks. But there are a few other low-cost tools that he says are necessary, such as fiberglass rollers, squeegees, razor blades and scissors.
Estimated Cost: $100–$2,500

Stocked Materials: Yeung says there are additional composite repair materials that shops need to have on hand, such as carbon fiber fabric cloths, vacuum bag materials, resins, and casting materials.

Acquire the Training

Jack Picciano, owner of Flower Hill Auto Body in Roslyn, N.Y., says it’s “virtually impossible” for shops to make proper carbon fiber repairs without specific carbon fiber training. There are currently three main avenues shops can take advantage of to obtain the information:

I-CAR. I-CAR rolled out a new online course in December 2013 titled, “Introduction to Carbon Fiber.” It’s an introductory class designed to teach technicians how to work with carbon fiber in the collision repair process through interactive exercises and videos.

“For people who don’t know anything about carbon fiber repair, the I-CAR course offers a great overview of what it takes to do carbon fiber repair,” Yeung says.

Abaris. Dorworth says Abaris offers two courses for collision repair technicians.

“Advanced  Composite Fabrication and Damage Repair 1.” This is a ground-level, prerequisite course for technicians to obtain an introductory understanding of carbon fiber. Technicians learn how carbon fiber structures are built and basic repair concepts.

“Advanced Composite Automotive Structural Repair 2.” Dorworth says this is an intensive five-day, hands-on workshop that teaches the fundamentals of carbon fiber repair. Technicians are introduced to specific materials, methods and techniques used for automotive applications. The course will be offered twice in 2014: July 21–25 and Nov. 10–14.

“If you really want to be the carbon fiber shop, this is where you would want to get training,” Yeung says.

Auto Manufacturers. Picciano says the most robust carbon fiber training avenue is directly through the auto manufacturers. Flower Hill Auto Body participates with the McLaren and Aston Martin certification programs, and receiving carbon fiber training for structural repairs was a requirement of both programs.

Picciano sent two technicians overseas on two separate occasions to obtain the weeklong training from both OEMs. They obtained a substantial amount of advanced education on the material, such as damage diagnostics, transfer of energy, alignment and application of fiber cloths, vacuum bagging processes, making molds, and casting materials.

It was a significant investment to make that happen, though. Picciano invested $2,000 for the Aston Martin course, and $4,000 for the McLaren course. Including travel expenses, the Aston Martin and McLaren training investment was roughly $10,000 and $12,000, respectively.

Picciano says that’s an investment that not all shops need to make immediately. Unless you’re in a high-income area with several carbon fiber vehicles, or are seeking certification through a high-end manufacturer, shops likely won’t experience an immediate return to make the investment worthwhile. He suggests starting with more affordable training based in the U.S. to gain familiarity with the material, and investing in more intensive OEM training once carbon fiber is more commonly used on vehicles your shop frequently repairs.  

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