Carbon fiber is 10 times stronger than steel and four times lighter, experts in the automotive industry say. Because of its high price, it has been used mostly on European supercars such as Ferrari and McLaren. But as prices fall, it's entering a more mass market on vehicles such as BMW's electric i3, which is predicted to sell 30,000 units annually.
Bilsing Automation North America Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Bilsing Automation GmbH in Germany, is seeing and profiting from an opportunity for carbon fiber in the auto industry in a whole new way — with the material used in the frame system for automation equipment.
Bilsing, based in the Detroit suburb of Clinton Township, began offering carbon fiber on its systems in 2005, but the business has only just started to pick up, said Benjamin Pauzus Jr., general manager of Bilsing Automation North America.
Carbon fiber prices have dropped from $35 a pound in 2003 to $10-$15 today, according to estimates reported by Automotive News.
The supplier recently completed a project at Chrysler Group LLC's truck plant in Saltillo, Mexico, where 18 robots failed because of excessive vibration of the automation machine's heavy aluminum parts, Pauzus said.
Bilsing designed a carbon fiber frame for the machines, which cut the tool's weight to 636 pounds from more than 1,200. The lighter weight made it possible for the robots to meet requirements for speed and positioning and smoothed out their operation. Without carbon fiber, the carmaker would have needed to invest in larger, more expensive robots.
"The material cost is 4.5 times more than steel, but they would have had to double the size of their existing robots to handle the inertia," Pauzus said. "Using carbon fiber, they also reduced wear time of the machines by a third."
Despite the high upfront costs of carbon fiber, Pauzus said, customers are seeing long-term savings. Chrysler saved roughly $2.7 million by retrofitting robots with carbon fiber as opposed to buying new machines, Pauzus said.
Bilsing created several videos for its customers about the benefits of carbon fiber and its abilities, which is moving the needle for smaller customers, he said.
"We've had to do some myth-busting for our customers — burn it, crush it, to show them how it will react compared to aluminum or steel," Pauzus said. "As we educate them more, we'll see more and more moving toward carbon fiber over tradition materials."