Ford and Geelong-based Carbon Revolution are have begun the production of the world’s first mass-produced carbon fibre wheels for the Shelby GT350R. These wheels will ship on the performance focused car in North America.
These carbon fibre wheels are not only strong, but are up to 50 per cent lighter than conventional alloy wheels. By lowering overall curb weight, it helps to improve a car’s handling thanks to a reduction in unsprung weight (those components not supported by the suspension). Less unsprung weight helps performance vehicles start, stop and turn faster by reducing wheel rotational inertia, dramatically improving response time to driver input. Lower unsprung weight also translates to suspension components not having to work so hard to keep the tyres in contact with the road over undulating broken surfaces.
Manufacturing carbon fibre wheels begins with the creation of the preformed internal carbon structure, composed of precisely manufactured carbon strands arrayed into woven fabrics. The elements are then placed into a mold using state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques.
An RFID chip with a unique tracking number is embedded into this structure, and each wheel is individually entered into a quality assurance system. Once this structure is assembled, it’s infused with resin and cured at high temperatures. This process results in a one-piece wheel that ensures maximum strength – eliminating the need to bond or glue the wheel’s spokes or barrel components together.
As the wheel cures, 61 individual checks and more than 246,000 data points are logged before it’s released from the machine. To guarantee quality parts, the cured wheels are analysed using a 3D computerised tomography (CT) imaging process, in which more than 18,000 X-ray images are taken.
If the wheel passes inspection, it undergoes machining for the valve stem and mounting hardware holes before it gets painted, coated, assembled, dimensionally checked and shipped to the Flat Rock Assembly Plant in North America for installation on the Shelby GT350R Mustang.
Ford President and CEO, Graeme Whickman said,
“As we move to a new phase in the Australian automotive landscape, enabling our supplier network to grasp new technology opportunities will be good for Australia, including our existing manufacturing team members who are seeking new opportunities and those tertiary students wishing to have a career in the auto industry.”
Ford has been working for around 18 months to ensure its employees are able to transition to the next phase of their lives through several Geelong supplier fairs, providing a $10 million contribution to the Federal and Victorian Governments’ Geelong Region and Melbourne’s North Innovation and Investment Funds.
Carbon Revolution was a recipient of the investment and innovation fund and now employs several former Ford workers at its Waurn Ponds plant in Geelong.
“Geelong will continue to be important for the auto industry as we shift to a business model that is based on ideas and innovation more than hands-on work,” Whickman said. “This type of development shows that there is potential for the ongoing sustainment of a high-tech supplier industry here in Victoria.”
By the end of 2017, Ford expects to become the country’s largest auto employer with around 1,500 highly skilled employees across professions such as engineering and design.
Ford engaged Deakin University’s Carbon Nexus research centre to accelerate already aggressive research and development of advanced light-weight materials for lighter, more efficient mainstream vehicles that also maintain leading safety and quality.
“Consumers today want better fuel efficiency, but they also want more technology and features in the car, which usually adds weight to the vehicle,” said Dave French, director, Asia-Pacific Vehicle Programs. “A focus on light-weighting will be fundamental to our industry for years to come, and we are investigating many advanced materials applications as possible solutions for weight reduction in our vehicles.”
Ford and Deakin researchers have been focusing on the key challenge of manufacturing carbon fibre more affordably for mainstream vehicle production. The research focuses mainly on reducing energy costs whilst increasing production throughput. Energy represents up to 20 per cent of the cost of producing carbon fibre.
The university established the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) in 2012 to address some of the major challenges facing society through innovations in materials science, design and performance. In 2014, Deakin University established Carbon Nexus, a globally unique carbon fibre and composites research facility, to specifically focus on carbon fibre and composites research.
Supported by the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, the AUD $34 million Carbon Nexus facility located at the Waurn Ponds campus of the University has two carbon fibre processing lines, one of which can manufacture various types of industrially relevant quantities of carbon fibre up to aerospace grade. Scientists also are conducting research into the chemical, mechanical and nano-scale characteristics of the carbon fibre materials produced onsite.