What sort of role might carbon fibre have in Australia’s industrial future?

A newly-opened, state-of-the-art research facility in Geelong and a new innovation hub are part of plans to boost the role Australia will play in the global market for carbon fibre products. Brent Balinski reports.  

“It was really the desire at that time to take weight out of the vehicle for performance reasons,” recalled VCAMM’s CEO Brad Dunstan of his first experiences with carbon fibre as chief engineer at Holden Special Vehicles.

“Now it’s more fashionable for emissions and battery range. But when I was at HSV it was ‘how do we rip weight out of the old girl so she can go faster.’”

Use of the exciting material – exciting for reasons including its unbeatable strength-to-weight ratio – is increasing rapidly in automotive and other sectors. Many believe Australia can play an important role as the composites industry develops.

Global demand for the material and its composites is on a steep upward trend. According to analysis by Lux Research, market demand is increasing at a compound annual growth rate about 13 per cent a year and will be worth $US 36 billion by 2020.

“Everybody thinks that carbon fibre is a 787 or an Airbus A350 – and it is – but the major demand is coming out of this industrial usage,” Dunstan told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

The awesome usefulness of the material and its composites extends way beyond aerospace, and into a plethora of uses including in offshore oil and gas, sporting goods, power cables, wind turbines and automobiles.

One part of the effort to get Australia involved in the burgeoning market is the Carbon Fibre Hub (CFH), announced – like the opening of Deakin University’s new Carbon Nexus research facility – last week.

The CFH is a partnership between META (the Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce of Australia) and the group Dunstan has led for over a decade, VCAMM (the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing).

The hub aims to “foster innovation, collaboration and engagement” between Australia’s high-potential manufacturers and researchers specialising in what is sometimes called “the aluminium of the 21st century”.

The hub will be, “Connecting all of the industry players, or participants, and then starting that process of developing the strategy and then basically seeing what applications we’ve got for carbon fibre and that can translate into projects,” Zoran Angelkovski, META’s managing director, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“[It will also be] seeking commercialised innovation, which means we want the hub to develop great ideas for projects that can be commercialised in a timeframe of less than two years.

The relationship between Dunstan’s group and META came out of a long relationship with Albert Goller, META’s chairman and formerly head of Siemens in Australia and New Zealand.

Dunstan unsuccessfully proposed an emerging technologies precinct when the former federal government was planning its network of Innovation Precincts (META was formerly known as the Manufacturing Innovation Precinct).

“We were talking to Albert about our desire to set up an emerging technology precinct around composites, so we briefed him on the expanding interest in carbon fibre composites and then felt that it warranted an emerging technology hub,” said Dunstan.

“But we’ve always kept Albert informed because if that wasn’t successful, from a manufacturing point of view it was a logical thing to explore carbon fibre composites.”

Among the core members are companies including Furnace Engineering, composites solutions giant DowAksa, Quickstep Technologies and Bruck Textiles.

The group is currently forming its strategy and identifying projects worth tackling.

There are hopes one core member, DowAksa, a joint venture between USA’s Dow Chemical and Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii of Turkey, will eventually open a factory in Geelong.

DowAksa attended the opening of Deakin’s new facility, and director Doug Parks last year praised the presence of Geelong’s high-skilled manufacturing workforce, including workers at Ford, whose factory will shut in 2016.

“Having DowAksa there also is very exciting, because they are looking at how they position themselves in the global market for carbon fibre,” said Angelkovski.

“And they are very pleased with what they’ve seen at the university last week in terms of how Australia is playing in the carbon fibre hub space.”

Deakin’s technology precinct’s new $34 million research facility has a team of over 30 research specialists, led by world-renowned expert Associate Professor Bronwyn Fox.

The facilities also include a 55-tonne production line (with four oxidation zones), a scaled-down single tow-line for R&D, and a high temperature (1800 degrees Celsius) and low-temperature (1050 degrees Celsius) furnace.

It’s also pointed out that it is the only real, full-scale carbon fibre line located in a university anywhere in the world.

Importantly, and uniquely, it’s also open access.

“Companies can come there to develop their intellectual property and take that away and commercialise it,” explained Dunstan.

“It’s the only place in the world where you’ll be able to come on down, walk in and see a complete carbon fibre line in operation. The rest of the world’s fibre manufacturers are increasingly secretive and you’re extremely lucky if you’re allowed in. Carbon Nexus doesn’t suffer from that.”

One of the difficulties facing the advancement of composites in Australia is the loss of not just Ford’s, but the other two remaining car companies’ factories by 2018.

Carbon Nexus was created with a goal of working alongside the automotive industry.

Dunstan conceded that the loss of an automotive manufacturing base to use in developing composite technologies is a huge shame, and will make things more difficult.

“However what we’re doing now is we’re working frantically with international companies and international engineering firms to bring technology to Australia to allow SMEs to take that up so they can start manufacturing components here in Australia,” he said, adding that there was also potential to transition some auto suppliers into working with carbon fibre.

The clock is ticking, of course, but there’s a chance to help some of the skills that are in danger of being lost. 

“We’re working with just about every automotive company in the world around carbon fibre and carbon fibre composites because we are, I believe, the best in the world,” said Dunstan.

“If we can say we’ve got the best in the world technology and we’ve transferred it to someone like Diver Consolidated, a metal stamper in Victoria, and they’re using world’s best practise in manufacturing composites, why wouldn’t Aston Martin or Daimler or whoever in the world buy components off that guy?"


For more information on VCAMM, go to www.vcamm.com.au

For more information on META, visit meta.org.au


Images courtesy of Deakin University's Carbon Nexus research facility

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