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A look into the world of carbon fiber composites reveals the benefits of carbon fiber. Many companies using carbon fiber parts in the manufacturing process has a catalogue of carbon fiber products. Besides the aerospace and automobile industry, other manufacturing industries have carbon fiber products on their shelves. These carbon fiber products may seem a bit higher in price in comparison to others made using other materials. Many of the products may seem like a luxury or available to a certain high class of the food chain. An average buyer would go for the most affordable irrespective of the materials used in making it. The reasons for carbon fiber products being more expensive than others is not farfetched. Let’s look at a few of them.
LONG COMPLEX MANUFACTURING PROCESS
The production of carbon fiber begins with the raw material popularly called precursor. A precursor mostly contains Polyacrylonitrile which is the base for most carbon fibers. Additionally, petroleum pitch or rayon is also needed. This is the organic polymers with long strings molecules bound together by atoms of carbon. To produce a carbon fiber, the organic precursor undergoes pyrolysis which has three stages. The first state is pre-treatment stabilization, followed by stabilization and finally graphitization. All these stages are complex and happen at temperatures ranging from 300 to 2800 C.
The precursor is heated to a very high temperature in the absence of oxygen to prevent burning while being drawn into long strands. Most of the non-carbon atoms will expel ad the atoms in the fiber vibrate violently. This is the carbonization process that leaves tightly inter-locked carbon atom chains. This process is followed by Spinning, Polymerization, Stabilization, Carbonizing and Treating as well. Sizing – the surface treatment of fibers which involves coating to prevent damage is also done. The coating could either be epoxy, nylon, polyester, urethane or nylon. As complex as this may sound, this is only basic information about the complex and intricate manufacturing process of making carbon fiber sheets. Each of these chemical processes is very elaborate and require precision and knowledge to accomplish. All these puts together increase the unit cost of manufacturing carbon fiber sheets. This directly affects the cost of carbon fiber products. So, when you see a heavy price tag on carbon fiber product, remember the complex chemical and mechanical manufacturing processes involved.
HIGH COST OF PRODUCTION FACILITY
Carbon fiber production requires a large investment in processing facilities and equipment. A world-class production line may cost a whopping $25 million or more. This high initial investment capital deters many investors, thereby leaving the market for only the bigwigs. A closer look into the industry reveals the major equipment and their costs:
The final process of making a carbon fiber sheet requires an autoclave. Autoclave machine is used is in the industrial manufacturing of carbon fiber composites. It exposes the carbon fiber sheets to high temperature and pressure such as 250°C and 10 bar respectively. The final stage is very vital and more complex. This is where the main carbon fiber forms in an autoclave machine. Autoclave process is what produces autoclave composites. This is what differentiates carbon fiber from fiberglass. Fiberglass can cure at room temperature, but carbon fiber requires an autoclave. For a large industry that produces premium quality carbon fiber composites, the process may require more than one autoclave with dimension as large as 3140 mm internal diameter and 8000 mm internal length.
Machining Center CNC
Machining carbon fiber sheets is a precision process only achievable with the use of computers technology. Cutting carbon fiber sheets requires a CNC machining process which uses computers with software that guides cutting machines. This is a precise cutting process the handles delicate materials. CNC simply stands for “computer numerical control”, a computerized three-dimensional cutting task for handling complex task such as carbon fiber sheets. CNC machining center for cutting carbon fiber composites has an operating area with dimensions: X: 3000 mm, Y: 2000 mm, and Z: 800mm. You can see the cost of equipment increasing.
Part of the complex of making carbon fiber composites requires ovens. The prepreg composites undergo thermal treatment during the post-cure stage. This thermal treatment aids in the structural bonding of carbon fiber sheets. An oven provides a uniform thermal treatment by providing steady temperature as high and 200°C. The ovens come in different sizes and dimension as well as costs. This cost directly impacts the cost of production.
The raw material – carbon pre-preg for making premium high-quality carbon fiber sheets are usually stored in a room with controlled temperature. Industries usually have a refrigeration room with regulated temperature for storing this raw material. The cost of building and running a storage unit also adds to the running cost of the company.
Investment in heavy-duty hydraulic presses is a major requirement in setting up a carbon fiber production plant. These presses can range from 120T to 800T of pressure. This range of presses don’t come cheap, they are quite expensive. A standard carbon fiber company with good production capacity should have 2-4 presses.
3D Scanner and Printer
3D Scanners and Printers don’t come cheap! They are large investments; you can almost count the handful number of 3D Scanning and Printing companies today. A standard carbon fiber composites company should have 3D Scanner and Printer for making prototypes. Prepreg composites are expensive, so companies must make prototypes first before venturing into bulk volume production. This is a needful investment for a carbon fiber company.
Paint spray booth
A wide variety of carbon fiber composite spray paint spray booth is available today in the carbon fiber industry. The painting room has a well-controlled temperature for proper and quality finishing. The spray booth occupies large space and costs thousands of dollars for installations and maintenance. The cost of installing and maintaining this unit is enough capital to set up a mini start-up venture.
Carbon fiber composites require proper ventilated and contamination-free environment. Different activities such as pre-preg lamination takes place in this cleanroom. Additionally, composites materials can be laid in the room also. This room occupies large spaces in the factory.
Other equipment worthy of mention includes Production line with the workstations and other including 3 workstations, each 150x280 cm, fitted with efficient vacuum pumps and heating system.
Wide belt sander, Ultrasonic Flaw Detectors, Thermal Analysis, Microscope, and also Hood. In addition to the complex manufacturing process of carbon fiber composites, the high cost of these complex list of equipment contributes to the high cost of the products. Any reasonable company that invests such a huge amount would have strict plans to optimize ROI in the shortest time possible.
HIGH COST OF RAW MATERIAL
In any manufacturing process, the lower the cost of the raw material, the less the product would cost. Similarly, the higher the cost of raw materials, the higher the products would cost. Making a premium quality carbon fiber composites requires top-grade prepreg carbon fiber of about 1250mm weighing 210kg which cost about £37/SQM. The cost per square meter increases as the weight and thickness increases. The high cost of raw material will impact the cost of the finished products. The market is driven by demand and supply. Carbon fiber global market demand is still increasing, though not so high. As of 2018, the global production capacity was 15,000 metric tons. This is very low as compared to the massive 1. 5 Billion Metric tons global demand for steel in the year 2020 with all the pandemics. The price of the carbon fiber products would experience a decline when the demand increase which will drastically drop the alternate sources like steel and aluminium.
Finally, there is no fun in gainsaying all the benefits of carbon fiber parts in products. It’s been proven, carbon fiber offers high tensile strength, high stiffness, and high chemical resistance. Additionally, it provides the low weight, low thermal expansion, and high-temperature tolerance. The benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) of carbon fiber products outweighs other forms of metal in the same field. Carbon fiber products offer great advantage more than fiberglass and other metals. A product that offers such many benefits would not come cheap. The benefits of a single carbon fiber parts could be more than twice a fiberglass or steel. So as expected, the more the benefits the higher the price. This applies to some other products as well. Carbon fiber products have benefits which directly outweighs the costs in the long run.
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