Five reasons why carbon fibre is the future of design

Carbon fibre is set to become commonplace in every product sector, from furniture to electronics, clothing to sporting goods. Marc Cohen, CEO of London-based start-up Hypetex, explains why.

The strength of carbon fibre enables designers to create more interesting design solutions that match their imagination - image courtesy of Hypetex.
The strength of carbon fibre enables designers to create more interesting design solutions that match their imagination – image courtesy of Hypetex.

The global carbon fibre industry is set to grow hugely over the next 10 years; forecasts say it will treble from $2.5bn to $6.36bn worldwide.

This massive uplift is being led by several factors, such as the greater demand for lightweight materials and increasingly imaginative designs that require composite technology solutions.

Here’s why I think carbon fibre is set to become commonplace in every product sector, from furniture to electronics, clothing to sporting goods.

Weight

The future of transport is electric, but the enemy of this new technology is weight. There are only two things that can improve the range and sustainability of electric vehicles – more power and lighter materials. Carbon fibre is one of the main solutions to saving weight in all forms of transport, from cars to planes to boats.

The aviation industry has already embraced this, which is why the majority of new projects from aerospace manufacturers are moving to a build made up of 85-90% composites.

For the automotive industry, carbon fibre has long been the preserve of expensive super cars, but all this is changing, as evidenced by the popular BMW i3, with its carbon fibre body. It is now only a matter of time before we see mass-produced vehicles made predominantly from carbon composites. That is due to…

Cost

The push and pull that’s happening in the carbon fibre market currently has already led to a lower average price point. At the same time, the cost of processing composites is being reduced through automated production solutions. This is a recent phenomenon that is picking up speed and will enable a lot more carbon fibre parts to be made across all industries at a much more reasonable rate.

It’s very much like how the steel market developed. Originally, every piece of steel was manually formed and very labour intensive, but over time the process became automated and now nobody touches a piece of steel from the point where it’s made to where it’s finished. The same is happening for carbon fibre.

The popular BMW i3, with its carbon fibre body - image courtesy of BMW.
The popular BMW i3, with its carbon fibre body – image courtesy of BMW.

Versatility

Carbon fibre is surprisingly versatile, not only in the material itself, but in the way it can be used. It is possible to create a carbon fibre based construction where the stresses vary in different places to support what it is being used for without incurring weight penalties.

For example, if I’m working with a leading footballer and he wants to have a certain set of boots that perform to his style of play we can create that.

For the base and studs of his boots I can analyse and synthesise an advanced composite solution that minimises weight but increases power in certain areas depending on how he kicks the ball. This solution could be extended so we could create different types of boots depending on each player’s position on the pitch, whether you are a forward, defender or goalkeeper.

The same approach could be applied to almost any sport or situation where a precise enhancement is required.

Strength

The strength of carbon fibre enables designers to create more interesting design solutions that match their imagination. The reason that visionaries like Norman Foster and the late Zaha Hadid have been able to produce incredible structures is due to composites. Most traditional structural materials do not bend well, they do not work well on big angles or really difficult designs, whereas composites can be shaped and formed in many different ways.

Having a lightweight construction allows you to be clever with the actual design of the building. Take Apple’s new headquarters, which features the world’s largest freestanding carbon fibre roof. This has enabled much of the rest of the building to be made of glass with minimal structural requirements to support it.

Look

Apple’s new headquarters features the world’s largest freestanding carbon fibre roof – image courtesy of Apple.
Apple’s new headquarters features the world’s largest freestanding carbon fibre roof – image courtesy of Apple.

The look and finish of carbon fibre is changing. No longer is it solely the plain black carbon weave that we are used to seeing. Different weaves and finishes have brought an aesthetic value to carbon fibre for the first time. Especially now that carbon fibre is available in colour.

You do not have to paint over it so you can now have colour without losing the visual weave making it instantly recognisable as carbon fibre, but adding a beauty too. This also reduces post processing cost (production cost) and overall weight.

This will continue to be a real driver for the market as products increasingly look to combine performance with stunning design.