Richard Gregory

Richard Gregory

While pressures to reduce vehicle emissions through weight saving have stimulated auto industry interest in lightweight composite components, there is also an appetite for bespoke cosmetic parts. We caught up with Prodrive's Commercial and Engineering Director Richard Gregory to learn about the challenges of satisfying some of the world's most discerning customers.

What is driving automakers to specify more carbon composite parts as enhancements to the standard vehicle?

In order to satisfy the requirements of an increasing number of wealthy customers, manufacturers have to differentiate their products visually. Buyers of even the most expensive prestige cars are looking for something that sets their vehicle apart from the regular production model.

Though inherently expensive to produce, carbon composite parts attract a sufficient premium to make good financial sense for the OEM. They can either be used to help define a limited-edition model, or offered as optional extras; in either case they justify a retail price premium well above their original manufacturing cost.

Often these parts are practical to supply as dealer-fit items, so don't add any complexity to the operation of a manufacturing plant.

What kinds of components are typically involved?

Both interior and exterior parts are included, ranging in size from a small section of console trim or a door mirror cap up to an entire rear spoiler or diffuser.

In exceptional cases, where a truly limited edition is required, we have supplied entire body panels with 100 percent visual weave in the finished composite.

What are the differences and challenges of producing these parts compared to conventional structural composites?

Because the weave is visible, we have to pay special attention to the alignment of the fabric, using computer control for cutting and lay-up. Where the 2D preform is draped into a 3D component there is a risk of stretching or creasing which would lead to unacceptable variations in appearance.

Where exterior body panels are unpainted we take great care to ensure an uninterrupted weave pattern is visible from one panel to the next, for example across the join between a door and a clamshell.

Often, we arrange the weave on all the interior trim surfaces in a herringbone pattern from the vehicle centre line, equivalent to the traditional wood veneer skills but with composites.

Have you introduced any special techniques to meet these requirements?

To give us control of the visible weave pattern, we implant a unique code into each fabric element as it is cut on the laser cutter which identifies how and where it is positioned during lay-up.

We have also developed a number of other capabilities that support the manufacture of parts with very high-quality surface requirements, such as our in-house moulding process that injects ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) onto the back of the composite.

By moulding onto the finished composite, we can match the convenience of an injection-moulded plastic part by incorporating the same mounting points, while providing the low weight, strength and superb display surface of carbon. This means that the Prodrive part can be attached in exactly the same manner as the original production part, and at the same speed, so enabling it to be line-fitted, if required.

We have a number of techniques for enhancing the visible surfaces in addition to aligning the fabric; we can control the weight, weave and pattern or even incorporate a coloured pattern in the weave. We work with feedback and requests from our customers which has led us to include coloured tints into the surface lacquer and produce a lacquer-free high gloss finish for exterior locations subject to stone damage. The fact that we have our own paint facility means we can retain full control of the manufacturing process and can provide the pieces exactly as required.

Why do the automakers come to Prodrive for these parts?

It's a combination of factors. We are probably close to the ideal size and scale of operation; many companies can provide an acceptable one-off part but we have the necessary process control to deliver large quantities every week, all consistent in quality, appearance and fit.

We are the biggest in the UK for this type of process; we have European competitors who are larger but less flexible.

Another reason is the turnaround time, we can go from the decision to proceed to delivery of first components in as little as 12 weeks. This is very fast, particularly when you consider that these are visual carbon components so the quality and finish must be perfect.

Finally, we should never underestimate the contribution made by our skilled operators. Their expertise in knowing how to prepare parts for painting without exposing the underlying fabric, or how to handle the most complex shapes during lay-up for optimal results, is a key factor in enabling us to supply such high-quality parts.

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