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Magna bets on a carbon fiber future

By: Kerri Jansen

March 24, 2014

Magna Exteriors is throwing its weight behind carbon fiber composites.

The automotive exteriors unit of Aurora, Ontario-based Magna International Inc. recently announced it would supply carbon fiber composite Class A body panels for two undisclosed 2016 model year vehicles, marking a new accomplishment in carbon fiber production. In recent years Magna has invested in building its offerings in carbon fiber composites, to help bring what was once a niche material to the broader automotive market.

Magna first investigated the business case for carbon fiber in the early 2000s, as one of several investments aimed at increasing body panel manufacturing while incorporating its painting systems.

“That was a significant interest for us, that we could create additional product portfolios on the exterior of the vehicle that focused on lightweighting and also allowed us to utilize our investment in our finishing capabilities,” said Tom Pilette, vice president of product and process development for Magna Exteriors.

Magna ultimately shelved its carbon fiber development because at the time, the high cost of raw material and lengthy processing time made expanding beyond a niche market difficult, Pilette said. Years passed before Magna determined the time was right to take another crack at carbon fiber.

Coming out of the economic recession, Magna saw a global push for lightweighting, with carbon fiber a key talking point, Pilette said.

“The market was defining a need,” he said, though Magna didn’t yet know the scope of that need. With pending changes to emissions standards and a global push for lightweighting, the company forecasted 2014 would be a pivotal year.

So nearly a decade after it first looked at the material, in late 2009 Magna set off making significant investments in carbon fiber, Pilette said. Though carbon fiber composites are still not a mainstream material, he sees their potential when companies can commit to developing the technology and searching out their value over traditional materials.

“If you can look at the application and you can consolidate many of the components, and you can look at the value beyond the raw materials, so the investment, the tooling … then I think you can justify a business case,” he said.

The advantage in using carbon fiber for Class A panels is that they’re a recognizable high-tech asset, Pilette said. The material also gives designers more flexibility with styling than they have with metals, allowing them to create a more distinctive look.

“If you think about these performance vehicles, many of them have power domes, they also have this unique look like they’re a wide-stance, very strong looking vehicle, which lends themselves to highly styled features, and that’s something that you can really integrate with composites quite nicely,” Pilette said.

Beyond structural parts and exterior panels, the automotive industry is starting to consider carbon fiber in applications that have traditionally been monopolized by metals, such as energy storage systems, Pilette said. But extending carbon fiber to those components will require a greater understanding of how the material behaves in those applications.

Magna is studying how composites perform compared to traditional materials in a variety of applications, to determine where lightweighting, and perhaps a carbon fiber composite, may be a good fit. When considering an alternative material, engineers first consider the performance requirements set by OEMs and the performance of existing materials in the application.

“We take a look at what that baseline is, and then we evaluate based on our experience whether we think we have a composite alternative that may provide some unique selling proposition, a business case decision, and then we would make a recommendation,” Pilette said.

To prepare for a broadening market for carbon fiber parts, Magna continues to work to build its supply chain. It now manufactures carbon fiber SMC at its location in Grabill, Ind., and offers the material for sale directly to molders.