Designing cars of the future

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The lowdown

At the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, British car manufacturer Aston Martin unveiled its latest carbon fibre car known as ‘Vulcan’. The sleek machine has a monocoque, which is like a single skin, made of carbon fibre. Using a single piece of material instead of many, reduces stress on the vehicle. The lighter material improves speed and reduces carbon emissions. As early as the 1980s, Formula One teams including McLaren pioneered this sort of technology, but now luxury players including Lamborghini, BMW and Lotus are entering the game, too. As carbon fibre technologies are developed and become more financially viable, they’re trickling down to mass-market automotive companies around the world.

According to Derek Buckmaster, research director at Deakin University’s carbon fibre composite research facility, Carbon Nexus, ‘Carbon has greater design capabilities than other materials. You’re building from molecules and particles. They have tailored properties, we haven’t made the most of that yet.’

Carbon composite materials make cars and planes lighter, fast and more economical. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is made of 50 per cent carbon fibre composite materials which has enabled a 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy and a 20 per cent reduction in fuel emissions. With these results, it’s no surprise that car companies are jostling to pass these advantages on to consumers. Mr Buckmaster says we are beginning to see some interesting car designs, such as the BMW i3’s carbon fibre chassis, but while luxury motor companies have lead the charge, the rest of the industry will soon catch up and bring lightweight carbon fibre vehicles to the masses.

Why it’s the next big thing in the automotive sector

Until recently the sector has been niche, with opportunities limited to high performance and luxury markets. Carl Dekoning, business development manager at advanced composite manufacturing company Quickstep, says the aerospace sector made the transition two decades ago, but the automotive sector is on the cusp of a complete manufacturing overhaul. There are two design streams in the burgeoning carbon fibre design industry. There’s the design process, which requires an ability to understand composite properties, moulding processes and techniques. There’s also a demand for the ability to apply design techniques to simulation tools and design software. ‘The skillsets will be in great demand not just in Australia, but globally.’ Dekoning explains that existing automotive design roles will need to be dramatically modified or changed completely because of the limitations associated with designing metal-based products. ‘We are seeing an increasing need to think outside the box in terms of traditional vehicle design,’ he says.

Parts of the Australian automotive sector have ground to a halt in recent years, but a complete demise of the industry should be avoided thanks to forward-thinking companies, including Carbon Revolution, which is leading the way in carbon fibre manufacturing and design. This year Carbon Revolution, which is based at Deakin University’s Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus, won a contract to supply its carbon fibre wheels to Ford Motor Company for the new Mustang. As pioneers of commercial carbon fibre wheels, the Carbon Revolution is reviving Geelong’s position as an Australian automotive market leader and drawing global attention. The evolution will require the next generation of engineers, scientists and industrial designers to combine forces and lead the charge in automotive carbon fibre design, and, in turn, change the look and feel of our vehicles as well as the driving experience.

Why it will be huge in the future

The market for carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRPs) is expected to more than double from $14.6 billion in 2012 to $36 billion in 2020, according to a Lux Report. Strap yourself in. It’s fast becoming big business, with lots of career potential. We’re seeing swift developments in a number of industry facets including materials, design and the driving experience itself. Google’s self-driving car has veered off test roads and into US streets. While the vehicle is a prototype, it’s proof that we could be travelling in autonomous vehicles in the coming years. Mr Dekoning points out that as cars become a place to relax and enjoy the ride, or get some work done while commuting, ‘There are some opportunities to consider how cars look and feel, which will create interior styling opportunities.’ He adds that Australians in this emerging field will work in global marketplaces, contributing to advances in manufacturing in Europe, North America and China.

How to land the gig

You could take a number of paths to arrive in a carbon fibre design role. Deakin University’s Derek Buckmaster, says it is likely that people with a mix of engineering, science and industrial design qualifications will be desirable candidates in this growing industry. He predicts we’ll see, ‘more and more of the global automotive players capturing smart, creative people with a wide range of skills’.

Locally, Ford is investing more than $300 million in research and development in Australia this year alone. Development of technologies to make vehicles fuel efficient and lightweight is key. Richard Taube, Australian manager of university programs at Ford says, ‘We are investigating the use of high-strength, lightweight carbon fibre for automotive applications. We are looking for graduates who are open to new ideas and have a willingness to innovate and challenge the status quo.’