In the push to find lighter and stronger materials that would make cars more fuel-efficient, some of the biggest names in automotive manufacturing have teamed up with composites manufacturers to try to find ways to bring down the cost of materials like carbon fiber. BMW is just one of them. But now it appears that the German car maker is ready to get out of the carbon fiber business. Could their willingness to sell be indicative of the future of automotive composites?
Reuters reports that BMW has agreed to sell its stake in SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, a chemical company that has been pursuing carbon fiber manufacturing in concert with the German car maker. SGL Group will gradually purchase BMW’s shares.
BMW has said it is still interested in carbon fiber as a composite material for future cars and, as such, will continue to work with SGL Group to come up with a less expensive manufacturing process. In the meantime, they will use more lightweight aluminum and steel to keep their cars as light as possible without negatively impacting profit margins.
The Price Point Quandary
At Rock West Composites outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, the news of BMWs divestment is not surprising. While Rock West supplies an extensive list of customers with a full range of composite materials, they know that the cost of manufacturing carbon fiber is one of the primary factors that has prevented the automotive industry from embracing it as a full replacement for aluminum and steel.
The BMW experience is illustrative of the price point quandary faced by automakers the world over. As a composite material that can be fabricated into nearly any shape, carbon fiber appears to be the perfect replacement for steel and aluminum in an era in which car makers are trying to come up with a commercially viable electric vehicle that gets excellent range. But making a car body and frame completely out of composite materials would drive the price up so high that only the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford a purchase.
On the other hand, carbon fiber and other composites could be the key to making electric vehicles reality if it were cheap enough to produce. For car makers, it is like having the holy grail of manufacturing materials within their grasp but still not close enough to get a firm enough grip on it. It is more than frustrating.
Limited Ongoing Use
For BMWs part, they are not abandoning composites altogether. The company said as recently as late November that they will continue limited use of carbon fiber and other composites even after completely selling their 49% stake in SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers.
SGL Group will benefit inasmuch as BMW will still be purchasing some carbon fiber materials from them as well as maintaining their 18% ownership share. A consolidated Automotive Carbon Fibers company under SGL Group will give the company a greater hand in developing and controlling the carbon fiber value chain in Germany. Better yet, SGL Group is paring its purchase of BMW shares with a move to buy a significant portion of another company known as Benteler Carbon Composites.
Is the BMW divestment indicative of carbon fiber’s future in automotive manufacturing? Yes in the sense that more car makers will be getting out of the business of carbon fiber manufacturing so they can concentrate on their own core products. But no in the sense that composite companies like SGL Group will continue looking for ways to make composite manufacturing less expensive for automotive use.