Carbon-fiber composites are hitting the road in North America on DaimlerChrysler AG's 2003 Dodge Viper.
The material is making an appearance in a limited form on a body panel for a Honda Motor Co. Ltd. Acura, and BMW AG is continuing its development work in carbon fiber for a possible future launch. All of that work, meanwhile, is spurring even more developments.
``We compete with all those brands, and we need to have our own application for carbon-fiber panels,'' Dave Hill, General Motors Corp. vehicle line executive and chief engineer for the Chevrolet Corvette, said during the Society of Plastics Engineers 2002 Automotive Composites Conference, held Sept. 12 in Troy.
``I've got Acura trying to pass me on the left, BMW trying to pass me on the right and the Viper trying to take a bite out of my deck lid.''
But Hill also warned that while high technology is gaining ground, no one should ignore the daily demands of improving the industry's existing offerings.
Carbon fiber now goes on a select series of high-priced European performance cars, sold for well in excess of $100,000.
Dodge executives said their use of a carbon-fiber sheet molded compound in the Viper marks the first true production use of the material in the automotive industry.
The Viper, the flagship of Stuttgart, Germany, and Auburn Hills, Mich.-based DaimlerChrysler's performance vehicle line, has had extensive composite exposure since its introduction, using both SMC and reinforced reaction injection molding. As the company began planning for the second-generation Viper, it wanted to boost its performance while reducing the overall weight by 200 pounds, said product engineer Mike Shinedling.
The carbon-fiber SMC comes in at three structural points, replacing metal with 2 pounds of the material in a windshield surround, 2 pounds for inner door panels at the hinge and 131/2 pounds' worth in the fender support. The support provides the structural skeleton of the front of the Viper linked to the steel space frame. It holds not only the fender fascia, but also a total of 34 different components, Shinedling said.
``The entire front half of the vehicle is held up by these attachments,'' he said.
DaimlerChrysler worked with Quantum Composites Inc. to create the SMC blend, with Meridian Automotive Systems as the molder.
``This is the highest-profile, highest-production car to use carbon fiber so far,'' Shinedling said. ``We look forward to future use.''
Detroit-based GM's performance group likewise is looking to launch carbon-fiber use, although the company is not providing any details yet, Hill said. The firm's studies have taken the material beyond mere research, he noted, and now it is looking at specific production opportunities.
Such opportunities probably will adapt carbon fiber to processing operations more common in the auto industry than in aerospace, he noted.
``As the manufacturing technology gets more efficient, and the manufacturing costs are reduced, the important thing for us is to be on the edge to be able to go quickly with products that are comparative with the products that are coming from Japan and Germany,'' he said.
All that growth in high-technology composites does not guarantee a straight shot for carbon fiber or even resin-based composites in all future performance vehicles. Molders are facing increased pressure from a surging aluminum industry.
``In [some] niche products, we're going to see quite an aluminum explosion,'' Hill said. ``That industry has got a lot of aggressive players, a lot of dynamic activity, and there's a lot of progress being made.''
Aluminum already won out at Ford Motor Co., which will use the metal for body panels in its limited-production GT 40 - a vehicle that had a composite body when it was introduced in January as a concept at the North American International Auto Show.
GM has been a strong proponent of composites, especially with the Corvette. The sports car even made its debut at NPE in 1952, a year before production launch, when creators showed off the vehicle built with its then-unique SMC body, Hill noted.
SMC still is the material used on today's Corvettes as the vehicle line approaches its 50th anniversary. It also will be in the body panels on GM's new Cadillac-based sports car, the XLR, premiering next summer.
But Hill said that when GM ran into some glitches during the ramp-up process for the XLR, it took another look at alternative materials and found that aluminum has progressed well during just the past two years. If the firm was making the same sourcing decisions today on the XLR, he said, GM might have given aluminum the nod.
``The SMC industry and plastic body panels in general have the opportunity to get a lot larger or get a lot smaller in a very short period of time,'' Hill warned composites engineers. ``It depends on the stretch mentality and the innovative spirit and the problem-solving attitude of people in this room.''