Carbon fiber is 10 times stronger than steel and four times lighter, auto industry experts say. Because of carbon fiber's high price, it has been used mostly by upscale European brands such as Ferrari and McLaren.
But as carbon fiber prices fall, the material is gaining use on vehicles with lower price tags, such as BMW's electric i3, which goes on sale in the United States in April with a sticker price of $42,275, including shipping, before a $7,500 federal tax credit and any state incentives.
And carbon fiber's use in the auto industry isn't limited to vehicle parts. Bilsing Automation North America Inc. of suburban Detroit uses carbon fiber for tooling frames.
Bilsing began offering carbon fiber in its tooling systems in 2005, but the business has just started to pick up, said Benjamin Pauzus, general manager of Bilsing Automation North America, the U.S. subsidiary of Bilsing Automation GmbH in Germany.
Carbon fiber prices have dropped from $35 a pound in 2003 to $10 to $15 today.
The supplier recently completed a project at Chrysler Group's truck plant in Saltillo, Mexico, where 18 robots failed because of excessive vibration of the machines' heavy aluminum parts, Pauzus said.
Bilsing designed a carbon fiber frame for the machines, which cut the tool's weight to 636 pounds from more than 1,200. The reduction smoothed the robots' operation.
"The material cost is 4.5 times more than steel, but they would have had to double the size of their existing robots to handle the inertia," Pauzus said.
Despite the high upfront costs of carbon fiber, Pauzus said, customers are seeing long-term savings. Chrysler saved roughly $2.7 million by retrofitting robots with carbon fiber as opposed to buying new machines, Pauzus said.
Bilsing created several videos for its customers about the benefits of carbon fiber, he said.
"We've had to do some myth-busting for our customers -- burn it, crush it -- to show them how it will react compared to aluminum or steel," Pauzus said. "As we educate them more, we'll see more and more moving toward carbon fiber over traditional materials."