Carbon fiber usage is on the rise across all industries. The automotive industry, in particular, has adopted it as a high-strength, lightweight alternative to alloys and other composites. This means that finding the right supply partner who can meet all of your needs is critical.
Currently, there are several companies, across industries, that can perform carbon fiber manufacturing of some sort; the automotive industry has a few key players who are leaders in providing carbon fiber. Due to the limited capacity of these suppliers, however, procurement professionals are left with major challenges to locate and source a capable carbon fiber supply partner at a reasonable cost and quality.
As a result, procurement professionals need to fully understand carbon fiber as a raw material, as well as its manufacturing process, to make the most informed sourcing decisions for potential applications.
At this point, one could make the argument that carbon fiber is not a commodity. While being a strong, lightweight material, it’s also expensive. The process of manufacturing carbon fiber is sluggish and labor intensive. However, procurement professionals must understand that cost shouldn’t be the main driver for choosing a supplier, and that quality is crucial when it comes to producing carbon fiber.
Though cost will remain a significant factor in most sourcing activities, large and small, make sure your team members really comprehend the raw materials that make carbon fiber, its manufacturing process, and how it will be used in your program(s).
4 Considerations When Sourcing a Carbon Fiber Supply Partner
Carbon fiber, is a forceful, yet lightweight synthetic fiber made by burning (or carbonizing) acrylic fiber at high temperatures. As mentioned before, carbon fiber’s demand increase caused the industry to evolve, making its capabilities vary from company to company. So, when sourcing a carbon fiber supply partner, keep the following considerations in mind.
1. Raw Materials
In order to source carbon fiber, and capable supply partners accordingly, a procurement professional must fully understand the raw materials used to produce it. The materials used to make it are organic polymers made up of long strings of molecules bonded together by carbon atoms. Ninety percent of the fibers are made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN), while the remaining ten percent are made from rayon or petroleum pitch. The raw material used to create carbon fiber is called the precursor. The precursor is pulled into very long fibers and heated to a very high temperature in an oxygen-free environment, which prevents the fibers from burning. The extreme temperature causes the atoms inside of the fiber to vibrate violently until nearly all the non-carbon atoms are expelled.
2. Manufacturing Process
Once the raw material is ready, there are usually 5 steps of the manufacturing process that occur:
- Spinning – The raw materials are mixed with acrylonitrile plastic powder and spun into fibers. These fibers are then washed and stretched, which help the molecules align within the fiber.
- Stabilizing – The fibers are then altered, chemically. This chemical reaction converts their linear atomic bonding to a more stable state.
- Carbonizing – The stabilized fibers then are heated to a temperature of up to 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit, so the fibers are formed into tightly bonded carbon crystals.
- Treating the Surface – The surface of the fibers is then oxidized. This is to ensure they have better bonding properties with epoxies and other materials.
- Sizing – The newly coated fibers are then wound onto cylinders called bobbins and loaded into a spinning machine that twists them into different sized yarns.
As a final step, the fibers are then formed into composite materials by adding layers of woven carbon fiber cloth and resin into a mold. The mold is then heated under pressure in a vacuum (Autoclave) until the fibers are bonded into its desired shape.
As of late, carbon fiber is a popular material for many different applications and below are some of the most common:
- Aerospace– Given its light weight and rigid strength, the use of carbon fiber is growing tremendously in the aerospace market. It’s used in commercial aircraft engines, military defense aircraft, helicopters, and even in NASA’s space shuttles.
- Automotive– The automobile market is quickly utilizing carbon fiber in many forms for both design and performance. Several manufacturers use it for the entire shell and chassis of an automobile, but given the high cost, most applications are used for specific components such as engine parts, body panels, and interior inserts.
- Sporting Goods– In order to gain the edge of moving fast by using lightweight materials with less resistance, carbon fiber has become a popular alternative to traditional materials used in sporting goods. Everything from tennis racquets, bicycles, archery arrows, gliders, surfboards, and even shock absorbers in running shoes are now being made with this incredible composite.
- Medical Devices– Carbon fiber is radiolucent, which means that it’s transparent to x-rays and other imaging devices. This makes it the ideal composite for medical equipment like radiological suite floors, tables, and scanner covers. It also provides durable, lightweight support for orthopedic inserts and prosthetic parts.
Perhaps the most important role that carbon fiber could play in future technologies is in the mass production of automobiles (fuel dependent). With the volatile prices of oil and the negative effects of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, auto manufacturers are under pressure to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Already a major practice when building high performance racing vehicles and super cars, replacing heavy alloy bodies, or other parts, with carbon fiber significantly reduces the amount of fuel consumed due to the weight reduction. One setback that could slow mainstream manufacturers from adopting this strategy, however, is cost; carbon fiber is much more expensive to produce than steel, and the entire process of creating it is time-consuming and complex.
On the up-side, large OEMs invested serious capital in carbon fiber production technology in recent years, so as it becomes more popular, and becomes a capability of more suppliers, the costs will decrease. Regardless of the automotive industry, the carbon fiber market is growing quicker than ever and isn’t expected to slow in the near future because of its wide array of applications.
Understanding everything there is to know about carbon fiber is no small task in today’s state of manufacturing and understanding the capabilities of potential suppliers is equally important. Some may focus on large-scale designs and production, while others may provide low-volume, boutique production.
Whichever type of supplier is right for your project, keep in mind the raw materials, manufacturing process, potential applications, and future implications of carbon fiber. This will facilitate the most informed sourcing decisions, in addition to keeping you aware of potential supply partners to continue using for prospective carbon fiber projects, creating considerable value now, and later, for your organization, and your customers.