German automaker BMW AG wants to do more than just create another carbon-fiber supercar. It is out to create a new infrastructure for carbon-fiber auto manufacturing covering everything from the material to the final product, and in the process open the door for wider use of the material.
“Our goal is to bring down the cost of carbon fiber to be competitive with aluminum,” said J"rg Pohlman, managing director of SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC, the joint venture between BMW and material supplier SGL.
To do that, the firms must establish a reliable material stream as well as take advantage of BMW's in-house resin transfer molding to make everything from structural beams to body panels, Pohlman said Aug. 1 during the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
All that work is for more than just technical reports. BMW, based in Munich, will use carbon fiber throughout its upcoming i3 passenger car — previously designated the Megacity vehicle — which will go into production in 2013 and on the i8 sports car, scheduled to launch a year later.
The carmaker just unveiled the concept vehicles in late July. Carbon fiber is key for production of both cars, which will run off electric engines from energy stored in on-board batteries. Lighter weight helps to offset the batteries' weight while also allowing BMW to get more miles out of every charge.
BMW estimates the composite will trim 250-350 kilograms (about 550-770 pounds) off of conventional materials.
But at the same time, using carbon fiber creates a whole new set of supply and production requirements, Pohlman noted.
The company has spent more than 10 years improving the production side of the equation, creating proprietary processing at its Landshut, Germany, plant to create quality carbon-fiber parts at faster speeds. It is now doing RTM of carbon fiber at cycle times of less than 10 minutes, he said.
Landshut's plastics facilities also make the carbon-fiber roof on the current M3 coupe. The i3 will place even higher demands for parts, from the moment it goes into production.
BMW's initial assembly plans will require about 6.6 million pounds of carbon fiber, which is about half the supply of the carbon fiber market in 2009, Pohlman said. Just one year's production of the i3 will take in more than 1 million parts. The company will use industrial-grade carbon fiber in the RTM components for the i3 car, rather than the higher grades used in aerospace and Formula 1 race cars.
As the firm pondered where it could secure a steady source of its raw material, it contacted carbon-fiber supplier SGL Carbon AG of Wiesbaden, Germany. The two firms quickly formed SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, the venture that Pohlman now works for, to oversee processing throughout the production chain, from raw material in Otake, Japan, to carbon-fiber manufacturing in Moses Lake, Wash., and final material preparation in Germany.
“Industrializing this process is very, very difficult and very, very challenging,” Pohlman said.
The more the auto industry invests in composites to cut weight and improve fuel economy in traditional internal combustion engines — or offset battery weight in electrics and hybrids — the more important it will be to understand and ramp up manufacturing.
In turn, he said, that will lead to further use of the materials in other cars beyond the i3 and i8.
“We are very excited over its potential in the next few years,” he said.