By on September 3, 2020

Once reserved for aircraft and the world’s most expensive sports cars, carbon fiber has been gradually wriggling its way into the mainstream. On Thursday, Nissan announced it had whipped up a method to manufacture carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) more easily and shorten production time by around 80 percent — adding that it planned to take advantage of the material in order to build increasingly lightweight cars.

The manufacturer also suggested the new process will reduce the cost of manufacturing CFRPs, addressing the industry’s favorite excuse for why they don’t use it more often. That said, the financial inconvenience of implementing carbon fiber is really a byproduct of how labor intensive it is. Most parts are laid into molds one layer at a time with the help of an expert and use vacuum pressure to ensure the resin sets evenly, since they can’t be machine pressed. Yet Nissan felt stamping was the way to go with carbon fiber and claims to have figured out how it should be done.

By creating forms with shallow grooves that allow resin to be distributed more evenly throughout the piece, the automaker says it can press out parts with the help of a vacuum system in a repeatable manner. However, materials still have to be carefully laid beforehand, and some trial and error is needed to determine which processes work for each individual component/form.

From Nissan:

While the benefits of carbon fiber have long been known, it’s expensive compared with other materials such as steel. Along with the difficulty in shaping CFRP parts, this has hampered the mass production of automotive components made from the material.

Nissan found a new approach to the existing production method known as compression resin transfer molding. The existing method involves forming carbon fiber into the right shape and setting it in a die with a slight gap between the upper die and the carbon fibers. Resin is then injected into the fiber and left to harden.

Technically, transfer molding isn’t new, but we’ve not seen many automakers trying to make it work for carbon fiber applications. Nissan already noted the shortened production cycle as one of the benefits, but we’d imagine it also requires a little less tedium when it comes to setting unformed layers of material — and a nice level of consistency once the stamping process has been finalized for an individual part.

However, we can’t see this being a huge benefit to the company unless it’s serious about slapping more CFRP into mainstream models. Tooling isn’t cheap and needs to be offset by enough volume to warrant the cost. Molds will also require substantially more maintenance than slathering a few layers of carbon fiber on a stationary mold that has to be slathered with resin and wrapped before being placed in a pressure chamber.

Regardless, Nissan claims the pieces will be quite strong and much quicker to produce. It wants to begin incorporating the parts into the entire lineup starting with B-pillars (and other simple shapes positioned higher on the vehicle) to lower vehicles’ center of mass. Making use of lightweight materials also aids in overall efficiency, and be a minor blessing as emissions regulations become more stringent.

[Image: Nissan]

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