Is Geelong Australia’s new ‘carbon capital’?

Geelong, Victoria’s second city, has emerged as an area of great expertise for advanced materials – particularly carbon fibre composites – in recent years. Brent Balinski spoke to Quickstep’s Carl De Koning about the company’s New Technology division, headquartered at Waurn Ponds.

It was hard to miss the “end of the road” for Ford Australia, when it shut its Geelong engine plant followed by its Broadmeadows assembly site last month.

Automotive manufacturing will continue to be a focus for many Australian businesses, however, even in Geelong.

Two high-profile local examples have ambitious visions for expansion, in fact, and their location – far from being a negative – is essential to their success.

One of these is Carbon Revolution, which announced plans to ramp up to 100,000 – 200,000 units annually of its high-end, one-piece carbon fibre wheels, and to list on the ASX by 2019.

The other also has a home at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus, as well as deep links to the university, dating back to the early 2000s.

“Deakin was involved in testing and development of our Qure [out-of-autoclave curing] process. We’ve been working with them for a number of years, and in fact over 11 PhD students have worked on Qure projects through that period,” explained Carl De Koning, Executive General Manager, Business Development (Automotive) & External Relations at Quickstep Holdings.

“A number of those are working either with us or Carbon Revolution today. So that’s been a good start to the collaborative process.”

The companies’ links to the university and the local “carbon cluster” continued with the October launch of the Future Fibre hub, assisted by a $4.7 million Australian Research Council grant.

“We’re trying to continue building the expertise that we have in Deakin and in Geelong, and that’s one of the other advantages of working with local partners, and to make this an Australian-known hub for fibre technology and materials research,” manager Dr Emma Prime told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Though the hub covers more than just carbon fibres (other development areas include nanofibres and high-performance novel fibres), Quickstep and Carbon Revolution belong to advanced carbon fibre research program.

Quickstep is well-known for aerospace applications of its composite processing technology and as a part of the Joint Strike Fighter program – making its first shipment in February 2013 – but has been busily pursuing automotive markets in the last few years.

It has achieved recent successes, including in providing parts for Thales’s Hawkei, an intake for Ford’s Sprint, and a deal to develop composite seat backs with Futuris.

Last year it brought its global automotive R&D from Germany to Waurn Ponds. The location has proven a great strength, according to De Koning.

The neighbourhood has seen significant public and private investment in materials capability, including in the $34 million open-access Carbon Nexus centre, launched in 2014.

“We are able to take [visiting clients] up to Carbon Nexus and show them the research centre there and the work that’s being done,” he said.

“They can see Carbon Revolution onsite there. What it does is create a much stronger impression for customers of the capability; not just your own, but what you’re able to tap into on that site.”

Though it could not share specifics about projects at the hub, these are underway and, said De Koning, include in lower-cost carbon fibre, systems for faster-curing resins, demonstrator parts for potential clients, and in process simulation.

“Deakin’s got some very capable people in automation and simulation,” he added. “And we’re working on simulating the manufacturing process and then putting that into real-life application in the demonstrator facility that we’ve set up there.”

He described the company’s two areas at the university as themed around R&D and demonstration manufacturing, with the latter put to recent use in creating parts for DCNS, with which it signed an MoU for the Future Submarines project in June.

Projects at the Waurn Ponds site have become so varied the automotive division recently changed its name to “New Technology”.

For the next year, the division will aim to reduce cycle times for automotive part processing, allowing higher volume output with a Class A finish, and deliver several demonstrator projects aimed at winning new contracts.

It is also working towards to fast-growing Korean market for composites technology, via research on their curing machines set up at Korea Institute of Science and Technology.

“One of our key things for 2017 is deliver that Kist project with a 30-minute cycle time, which is what they’ve nominated, and being able to provide class A surface performance,” he said. Korea is investing heavily in building its composites capacity, said De Koning.

The opportunities for the Geelong region to also take advantage of the predicted booming demand for carbon fibre-based products have been much-discussed in the lead-up to Ford’s departure.

According to one piece of market research, global demand would increase at a compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent from 2014 onwards, reaching 86,000 tons in 2020. Some of the action might hopefully find its way to Geelong.

Work done at the Future Fibres centre, which has partnerships with organisations such as MIT and Oxford University, would add to the area’s expertise and profile, said Prime. “By having them involved and trying to grow Geelong as the centre of fibre technology in Australia, that will [hopefully] lead to the attraction of other businesses to look at us and say ‘Geelong?

The opportunities for the Geelong region to also take advantage of the predicted booming demand for carbon fibre-based products have been much-discussed in the lead-up to Ford’s departure.

That has such great knowledge in technology and materials science and fibre science and maybe we should think about working down there,’” she said.

For carbon composites to break into the mainstream in automotive, costs and cycle times will need to come down. This is also part of what Quickstep and its research partner are driving towards.

“We have a process now that can cure the part in a lower-cost environment, but to really push carbon fibre into the next level of vehicle application, it needs to be lower-cost,” said De Koning.

“It needs to come down to a point where it’s comparable to other materials, and therefore that material science work with Deakin and CSIRO through the Future Fibre Hub is a really critical part of the next generation of parts and being able to be cost-competitive against traditional automotive materials.”