The magic word is carbon composites or more precisely carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFK). The material has a comparable strength and is not only 40 per cent lighter than aluminium, which is normally used for lightweight constructions and is free from corrosion. The design and production technology can be adapted to give it the precise traits required for a special application. However, there is still one major drawback: components made of carbon composites are often more expensive than comparable aluminium solutions. Although this may be tolerable for the aviation industry or the construction of race cars, commercial vehicles have to meet quite different requirements. At stake is whether lightweight construction results in reduced gasoline consumption and lower operating costs of the vehicle as well as higher profits thanks to increased payloads per trip.
Road to electric mobility
Carbon Truck&Trailer GmbH in Stade was founded with a truly ambitious goal. Their idea was to design the entire chassis of a transporter with extra light carbon composites. They aimed not only to increase the vehicle’s payload, but also to lower CO2 emissions and boost the efficiency of a transporter fleet by increasing each vehicle’s transport capacity. And they have come up with a practical solution for future electric vehicles in their drive to revolutionise urban transport.
CFK Valley in Stade
Their choice of location was by no means coincidental. Stade is also home to the CFK Valley with a cluster of expert companies near the Airbus plant. CFK Nord is also located in Stade where DLR and the Fraunhofer Institute operate a huge research centre for carbon composites. CarbonTT wanted to access both the carbon know-how concentrated in Stade and to co-operate with VW as automotive technology partner as well as the Swiss Coop group, which was willing to put the very first refrigerated vehicle with CFK chassis on the road.
Higher payloads thanks to new carbon technology
The new CarbonTT transporter model was presented at the IAA Commercial Vehicles in 2016. It represented a new type of lightweight transporter designed on the basis of VW’s latest T6 transporter. The vehicle features the same dimensions as the conventional model, but offers up to 40 per cent more payload. It is ready for serial production and can already be pre-ordered from EUR 45,900. Gerret Kalkoffen, CEO of CarbonTT, said: “We have subjected the vehicle to comprehensive endurance tests and simulated all kinds of real-life driving conditions. The results fully lived up to our expectations. The very first vehicle is already operated by the Swiss Coop group and has shown no problems since it’s commissioning some six months ago.”
Building block strategy
Kalkoffen sees one major challenge to the future of carbon composites: “One primary goal is the development of production technologies for CFK components that are compatible with serial production. Our strategy in this field is based on a building block approach that is characterized by a high level of standardization in combination with simplified component geometries.” Kalkoffen is convinced that in a few years, CFK components for the body and chassis of a vehicle can be realized at the same cost level as the predominant steel construction nowadays.
At present, the company is looking for customers preferably from the Hamburg Metropolitan Region. Then they will count among the first users of a transporter that looks very similar to a conventional VW T6 transporter but with a 40 per cent higher payload. For CarbonTT, this will mark the start of small serial production and a chance to gain practical experience with the production of vehicles based on carbon composites. Research and product development are already working on the next step. Next year, CarbonTT will introduce a transporter for urban transport combining a super light carbon structure with an advanced electric drive. The technology also benefits from institutions located in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region such as CFK Valley, the Composite Technology Centre and the University of Applied Sciences (HAW).
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