Australian automotive manufacturing has seen some gloomy headlines in recent years, but we enjoyed some good news in July, when Ford Motor Company announced that the latest model of its iconic Mustang muscle car would feature pioneering wheel technology developed and made here by Carbon Revolution. By William Poole.

The news that the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350R would run on Carbon Revolution’s one-piece carbon-fibre wheels represents the culmination of a sustained period of effort from the Geelong-based company. CEO Jake Dingle is quietly confident the announcement will be the first of many.

“It’s enormous news for us, and for the industry globally,” says Dingle. “Ford is generally not seen as a big risk-taker; they’re as careful as any OEM, and for good reason. You don’t introduce new technology in a safety-critical area of a car without a robust validation and qualification process. Hopefully the Ford program is the first of numerous OEM programs you’ll be reading about over the coming years.”

Carbon Revolution’s wheels offer substantial benefits in terms of the car’s handling, acceleration, braking, ride quality and overall performance. Much of this is down to the weight savings that accompany carbon-fibre – each wheel weighs around 8kg, compared with around 15kg for aluminium equivalents.

“Wheels have a premium in terms of weight because they rotate and they sit below the suspension,” says Dingle. “Any weight you can take out of wheels is worth a lot more than it is on the static mass of the vehicle. Ford has established that the GT350R is right on par with the GT3 Porsche on the track. A lot of that is due to the superior vehicle dynamics they’ve managed to generate through light-weighting.”

Carbon Revolution released an aftermarket product a few years ago aimed at high-end sports cars, but the Ford deal marks the first return on a deliberate strategy to target the big auto manufacturers, with several other OEMs also in the company’s sights. While mindful of the confidentiality concerns of potential customers, Dingle does disclose that at least a dozen OEMs have already tested the wheels.

“We never intended to just create a supercar technology that was appropriate for someone building 20 cars a year,” he explains. “We got into this to develop a high-volume disruptive technology – the next variant of wheel technology after stone, wood, steel, aluminium… and now composites. The business has been set up to supply OEMs. There are a number of other programs in different stages at the moment, but nothing I can announce.”

Intellectual property is another area where Dingle is understandably guarded – when asked what he can reveal about the technologies and processes that Carbon Revolution has developed, his answer is light-hearted but unhesitating: “Absolutely nothing!” Carbon Revolution’s IP has been developed from scratch, and the company defends it with a robust mix of patent protection and trade secret mechanisms – cameras are barred from its production line. However, Dingle stresses that, in getting its wheels on the road, the manufacturing process has been as crucial as the product.

“Essentially one of our challenges has been to take a material that people typically associate with manual manufacturing processes, and to automate how we use it,” he explains. “You have to start with manual processes in order figure out how to mechanise them – to develop machines with far less manual interaction. Once mechanised, the step to automation is often actually simpler. Stepping through this process has been the biggest challenge.”

The result is a production system that arguably epitomises modern advanced manufacturing. Every wheel or piece of tooling carries a unique RFID identifier so that the entire process can be scanned and monitored, allowing high levels of traceability and control. According to Dingle, Carbon Revolution’s processes have provoked envy in other automotive component manufacturers, and serve as a selling point to intended customers.

“We’ve had multiple OEMs conduct quality audits on our processes and they’re all very impressed how we’ve managed to deploy standard quality control approaches to a material not associated with high volume and repeatability. They recognise that we’ve gone further – we’ve incorporated some very high-tech aerospace technologies to our manufacturing. From day one we wanted that, we wanted to deploy aerospace rigour to the way we produce components.”

A revolutionary formula

Carbon Revolution’s story began at Deakin University in the mid-2000s, where engineering students, staff and industry mentors began developing carbon-fibre wheels for teams entering the Formula SAE student motorsports competition. In 2007, a group of them decided to try to commercialise their work, and with a small federal grant the company was formally established. Dingle came on-board a few months later.

“From around the beginning of 2010 things got going in earnest,” he recounts. “That’s when we had prototypes built and tested on vehicles, and got into Europe and the major OEMs there with these prototypes, and North America soon afterwards. Over the following four years we dealt progressively with the questions, the scepticism, the interest and the direction provided by talking to customers, then working away back in Australia to solve the issues and develop a variant of the technology that met their requirements and was as manufacturable as possible.”

Today Carbon Revolution occupies a new facility that it has built on Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus, housing a workforce of almost 100 that supplements many of those original students with people brought in from backgrounds in high-volume manufacturing at companies such as Bosch, Futuris and Boeing. The production workforce has more than doubled since the beginning of 2015, with many personnel coming in from Ford, Alcoa and other traditional industries in the region. Further job creation is projected as ambitious growth plans gather pace.

“The new facility is designed to be able to produce up to 50,000 parts per year,” says Dingle. “We’ll fill that over the next two to three years hopefully with the programs we’re in the process of signing up. Beyond that we have an agreement with Deakin to double the size of the facility, but we’ll probably take capacity up by five times through automation and process improvements. For 50,000 parts a year we’ve estimated 150 people; for 250,000 probably more like 350 people.”

Despite these bullish expansion plans, we’re still some way from seeing carbon-fibre wheels on every car in the showroom. Dingle acknowledges that 50,000 wheels is tiny in global terms – one of the company’s major strategic partners, Ronal, produces 20m aluminium wheels a year. But Carbon Revolution is planning for the long term.

“Even aluminium is not on every car,” says Dingle. “Aluminium started upsetting the steel apple-cart in the very early 70s. I think now it’s around 50-50 on a global scale. Getting to 250,000 is our next phase, but that requires a lot of additional automation and improved cycle times. All of which we’ve got in the plan. We’ve got a technology pathway for product and process that stretches out over the next five-plus years, as well as raw materials cost reduction initiatives with partners like CSIRO, Carbon Nexus and Deakin University.”

For now, Carbon Revolution enjoys first-mover advantage, with few direct competitors. Some outfits have had some success with two-piece wheels, with a carbon-fibre barrel coupled to a metal hub and spokes, but these have seen problems with tolerancing and durability.

“We’re the only company in the world that focuses solely on this,” Dingle says. “We’ve set the company up to commercialise one-piece carbon-fibre wheels and everybody comes in and works exceptionally hard all day working out better ways for doing this. We’d be naïve to think we won’t be competing at some stage, but by relentlessly driving the technology as hard as we can, we have a great opportunity to maintain the global leadership position we’ve established.”

Fibres of the future

With Carbon Revolution sharing campus space with partners such as CSIRO and the Carbon Nexus research facility, Geelong is fast emerging as a key hub composites research and development. Dingle believes advanced materials such as carbon-fibre could be an area with significant potential for Australian manufacturing.

“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. We’ve got some very smart, practical people here. It needs investment and risk-taking, and some strategic thinking; it’s not going to happen automatically, just by saying it has to happen. There need to be people who are willing to put time and energy and capital at risk to try and do these things.”

Dingle is adamant that Australia needs to maintain a manufacturing base, and that with the traditional labour-intensive sector in decline, the future lies in more advanced, high value-add areas. And while he’s confident Australia has the people and capabilities to achieve that, it will need commitment and effort.

“I’d hate anyone to these recent announcements mean we’ve made it and it’s all done. There’s still a massive amount of work involved in driving our product and process technologies further and ultimately creating a large-scale industrial position. And you need a strong, cohesive team of talented, tenacious people to do it, which fortunately we have. I’d hate anyone to think it was easy!”

Nonetheless, Carbon Revolution appears committed to remain an Australian manufacturer.

“I don’t have any doubt we can maintain a manufacturing base here in the long term,” says Dingle. “Some manufacturing is going to need to be in markets, but a decent volume of manufacturing for the automotive industry as well as all of our R&D will always stay here, and there’s no reason aerospace and industrial components can’t be manufactured competitively here for global markets.”

Meanwhile, diversification plans are taking shape. Sectors such as aerospace, defence, public transport and haulage represent areas of great potential, where the light-weighting benefits of Carbon Revolution’s technology would be highly advantageous.

“We’re close to signing an agreement with a big offshore partner in the aerospace sector, where this technology has an even more logical place than in the automotive industry,” says Dingle. “It’s an absolute no-brainer, taking 40%-50% of the weight out of aircraft wheels: there’s huge benefits. That’s the next horizon of our strategy really, but we had to get the automotive part bedded down properly before the distractions of trying to diversify.”

One thing that’s not on the agenda is any move away from the wheel itself.

“There are thousands of things we could diversify into, and many of the things we’ve developed to make these wheels are applicable to other products,” says Dingle. “But with 60m-70m cars built every year, and then trucking and aircraft, it’s a long time before we start running into demand shortages for this sort of technology.”