DETROIT — If 2014 was the year of aluminum for Ford Motor Co., 2015 is looking like a year for carbon fiber.
The automaker debuted its newest GT supercar at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Jan. 12, a car that will come with a carbon fiber passenger cell and structural carbon fiber body panels.
Ford also announced a new development project with Dow Chemical Co.'s DowAksa joint venture to develop lower cost, high-volume carbon fiber composites to meet the growing needs for lightweight materials in the auto industry for the future.
The work with DowAksa, a 50-50 venture between Midland, Mich.-based Dow and Turkey's Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii AS, builds on a 2012 project with the same companies focused on manufacturing.
“That was to look at high-volume production techniques for carbon fiber,” said Alan Hall, technology communications manager for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. “Now this collaboration focuses on low-cost automotive grade carbon fiber as well as looking at how to handle the cost and the supply.”
The work also is part of the multi-state National Network for Manufacturing Innovation announced by the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy on Jan. 9. In addition to supply and production, the companies will look at ways to recycle carbon fiber.
Details on the project are being hashed out now, Hall said, but the belief is that long-term research will be key to moving carbon fiber into more mainstream vehicles.
And in a way, the high profile GT supercar also will play its part in helping lead composites to larger scale production.
The 2016 GT already represents a step forward for Ford's use of carbon fiber. The last GT, in 2005, used carbon fiber, but only in an interior panel within the hood, where it was not visible.
The new one, set to go into production this year, has carbon fiber within the passenger cell along with aluminum front and rear subframes, which are encapsulated in structural carbon-fiber body panels.
The GT will be a very low production car, but Raj Nair, group vice president and chief technical officer, said that is exactly the type of vehicle needed to push through new developments.
“When you see implementation of a lot of new materials, you see them come in in lower volume,” he said in an interview on the auto show floor just minutes after Ford rolled out the GT. “Even aluminum came in first in lower volume, and now we've crossed that threshold where we're the first manufacturer delivering an all-aluminum body in a very high volume.
“You'll see similar trends, we think, for carbon fiber. So this introduction of the GT with its full carbon body structure and body panels is probably on a path for us to have increased implementation of carbon fiber in vehicles.”
Before Ford made the commitment to replace steel with aluminum for the F-150 pickup, it had to test out both the material and production in lower volume vehicles, Nair said.
“We've seen development in cars like this in carbon fiber, where you can use it to innovate, then take the lessons learned about the material, and obviously we see a lot of potential for it in high volume capabilities,” Hall said.
And Nair said carbon fiber is all part of an overall lightweighting trend, which is needed both to meet higher fuel economy standards and improve performance on sports cars like the GT.
“We have to look pretty far out when we're designing vehicles and technologies,” he said. “The level of [low fuel prices today] we're pretty certain is not going to stay there. For regulatory requirements, and doing the right thing for the environment, as well as the expectation of oil prices coming up in the long term … we have to invest in research and technology.
“The industry is at a bit of an inflection point with a lot of technologies coming in at the same time. A near-term way to show our focus on innovation and capability is through performance vehicles and racing.”