Revolutionising Industry 4.0 carbon fibre wheels

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Carbon Revolution’s CEO Jake Dingle (left) and chief technology officer Dr Ashley Denmead (right).

Carbon Revolution CEO, Jake Dingle, and chief technology officer, Dr Ashley Denmead, tell Jade Psihogios how they have evolved the production process of their wheels to enhance the sustainability of their complex carbon fibre product.

Australia’s movement toward the fourth industrial revolution has been seen as a difficulty due to a lack of manufacturing bases, visible in competing countries. A 2020 report released by Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work revealed that Australia ranked last with all other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies in producing manufactured goods. It disclosed Australia was producing two thirds more manufacturing output than it consumes, making it an underdeveloped and expensive industry.

Only in October 2020, when the federal government invested $1.3 billion into its Modern Manufacturing Initiative (MMI), had businesses seen opportunities to commercialise ideas and integrate expensive technologies into their manufacturing. Businesses can now apply for grants of a minimum of $1 million to a maximum of $20 million to create jobs, scale up and compete internationally. For Carbon Revolution, it was an opportunity to strengthen the factory and enhance the production of their lightweight carbon fibre wheels and produce sustainably at a faster, more cost-efficient pace.

Founded in 2007, Carbon Revolution began with the goal of providing disruptive efficiency technology to all vehicles, with the first single-piece carbon fibre wheel made by hand for a Deakin University Formula SAE race car. Since then, the design of the wheels was iterated many times to become one of the most complex carbon fibre products.

Carbon Revolution is now celebrating its 50,000th single-piece carbon fibre automotive wheel, designed to be fitted to the rear of a Corvette Z06. Sold at the Waurn Ponds Victoria Factory, the rear wheel is the first five-spoke design and the largest wheel to enter production.

Carbon Revolution’s CEO, Jake Dingle and chief technology officer, Dr Ashley Denmead, explained how the adoption of web 4.0 technologies enhanced the carbon fibre wheels into an environmentally and cost-efficient wheel that commercialised carbon fibre into a global setting.

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Carbon Revolution’s team celebrates the 50,000th wheel sold in front of the Geelong facility.

Industry 4.0 technology

Carbon Revolution’s adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies started early in their origins. This was due to the company prioritising traceability, data, and digital production to make their wheels faster and reduce cost. One of the areas Carbon Revolution applied Industry 4.0 is their tooling, where the carbon fibre moulds are placed and heated before the resin is injected to form a wheel.

Using virtual product development technologies, Carbon Revolution can simulate wheel durability and stiffness and measure control temperatures and pressures during the insulin process and before the wheel emerges from its tooling.

Compared to the first wheels, which were made by hand with long cycling times, the production process has become highly automated, Denmead said.

“Over the past 15 years, we have iterated this architecture which ensures that carbon fibre piles are placed in the optimal direction to maximise the strength of the wheels as efficiently as possible,” Denmead said.

“This makes our wheels much lighter than aluminium wheels and ensures they stand up to the numerous multi-directional forces a wheel is subject to.”

However, their main position of adoption is the use of big data and machine learning. Live data analysis and automated recognition of out-of-process or in-process data ensure that issues can be identified before a human operator notices them. Automated processes like their high-pressure resin transfer moulding capture data de-risk the production and provide a better understanding of how they can continue to improve the process.

“We can use these machine learning platforms to pick up patterns or abnormalities that a human eye wouldn’t see as quickly,” Denmead said.

“This means we can rectify issues much sooner, saving a lot of time and money in reducing reworks or scrappage and meaning that we can reliably meet the volume requirements of our OEM customers.”

Live data also enables the running of event simulations, working out the optimal way of ensuring tools are still hot when they are transported to different parts of the factory. They can position robots in the optimal place to transfer them onto a conveyer, ensuring safety and efficiency than having a human operator handling a dangerous tool.

The adoption of Industry 4.0 technology is crucial due to the well-known barriers of geography and labour cost, Denmead said.

“The way to overcome these is to get smart and efficient, and that’s what Industry 4.0 technology allows us to do,” he said.

“Innovative manufacturers around the world are adopting these technologies to stay ahead of the curve, and Australian manufacturing companies should not be left behind.”

Case studies

To prove the wheels’ efficiency, Carbon Revolution carried out early testing using techniques that were favoured by OEMs. First contacting European OEMs in 2010 to find out what was needed for the wheels’ validation, they conducted testing with the TÜV in Germany to develop a validation program drawing upon both OEM and aftermarket standards.

These tests were carried out to ensure the wheels’ performance in impacts like potholes, kerb strikes and fatigue, simulating thousands of kilometres of hard driving, Dingle said.

“A good example is Bi-axial fatigue testing, which is performed in a sophisticated rig and uses a robotic arm to press the wheel against a rotating drum, loading up the wheel in both vertical and axial directions,” Dingle said.

“The forces are based on laps of Nürburgring racetrack… covering the equivalent of over 300,000km on a vehicle. This test is favoured by the major global OEMs but is typically not part of aftermarket industry testing, so we created our test protocols which encompassed all stringent OEM checks and added extra because we wanted OEMs’ confidence in the strength and durability of our wheels.”

In the development of the recently released C8 Z06 Corvette wheel, GM engineers subjected the wheel to no less than 30 different testing rigs, processes and simulating extreme conditions to ensure the strength and durability of the wheels.

“One aspect of any wheel’s validation is to take it through repeated testing cycles at progressively higher loads, excess of what would be experienced in a real-life track or road setting to simulate failure mode,” Dingle said.

“Not only were the loads required to simulate failure of these wheels higher than any we have seen, but the way the wheels failed was considered to be safe due to the properties of our carbon composite construction.”

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Carbon fibre wheels incorporate Industry 4.0 PAD printing to enhance the product’s durability and testing.

Carbon fibre future

Carbon Revolution currently has six programs in production with three global OEMs – Ford, Ferrari, and General Motors – with a further nine programs in development, including four for electric vehicles (EVs). Carbon fibre allows the production of thin aerodynamic structures without a weight penalty, opening design flexibility for EVs.

The low density, high stiffness and damping properties of carbon fibre mean that the wheels can also reduce the transmission of noise, vibration and harshness for the EVs.

“We are very excited about the electric future, particularly because our wheels are so well suited to EV applications,” Denmead said.

“Many OEMs are going to great lengths to reduce EV road noise, but the solutions involve adding weight to an already heavy vehicle. Our wheels reduce road noise and at the same time offer massive reductions in weight.”

The new programs will see the company move from the performance space to supplying wheels for higher volume vehicles, including SUVs and pickup trucks, bringing lightweight carbon fibre wheel technology to a broader cross-section of the automotive space.

“Our next 50,000 wheels will be made to the same superb quality as our first, but we will make them faster,” Dingle said.

“We are looking forward to achieving many more milestones in the coming years, with new wheel programs entering full production at much higher volumes than previously.”