Local Motors discusses high performance composites in automotive

Alex Fiechter, Head of Engineering of Local Motors spoke to Smithers Rapra ahead of GOCarbonFiber 2015. Find out what he had to say below:

Q. Please briefly describe your background in composites

I have worked in the automotive industry for 8 years, and during that time have had exposure to composites primarily used in structural components, body and fluid transfer. More recently, as Local Motors has started the move to 3D print cars I have had to interact with composites much more frequently in the form of the materials extruded in the additive process.

Q. High performance composites for light weighting in automotive – nice materials for supercars, or do they have real potential in mainstream production?

Certainly they have potential. As the industry becomes increasingly efficiency conscious, light-weighting will be championed as a focus. The weight of the vehicle structure is one of the largest contributors to overall vehicle efficiency, so materials that give the edge in this area will become key. The difference though will not only come from advances in the economics of the material creation, but also in the processes used in the manufacturing.  Composites have typically been very reliant on tooling, contributing to the overall cost of the material choice. As we move to more tooling-independent process with composites, this will help to make the materials more accessible.  

Q. What types of composite materials do you see as gaining the highest adoption rates in automotive?

It depends, from a structural perspective it is still carbon fiber in the near future. When you start talking about other systems like the drive and powertrain, I think that list shifts.

Q. When is it just not appropriate to use composites as metal does a far better job?

The general arguments are when you need to be conscious about recycling, material repair, and cost. I would say though that the validity of these statements is more and more at risk as composites continue to improve and expand.

Q. Is carbon fiber a long term option for external body panels?

With a decrease in cost potentially. Right now, very often repairs happen as much as replacements for metallic panels in accident scenarios as an example. Before composites could come in as a replacement, they would need to address the economics. 

Q. You have developed an innovative but controversial approach to manufacturing and supply chain management, what do you see as the route to mainstream adoption of this approach?

What's the value to the customer? The first step is to figure out what this methodology offers to the user that they won't get through the alternatives. Through this, you get a group of early adopters that are willing to put up with some of the uncertainty of the process. This group then acts to normalize the usage of this process for the broader consumer body. 

Q. Finally, we are very pleased to have you on board for the conference this year, what are you hoping to gain most from this event?

Info and inspiration for are current projects, as their success hinges completely on the appropriate use of materials in our toolkit.