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6th April 2018, Paris

Interview with Marco Gehr, COO, ELG Carbon Fibre

ELG Carbon Fibre, a leading supplier of carbon fibre products, based in Coseley, UK, has been awarded the JEC Innovations Awards in the Rail Category this year for its role in the production of an optimised lightweight carbon fibre rail bogie frame with integrated suspension and steering functions. The awards ceremony took place at the JEC World trade show, which concluded in Paris last month.

The project, for which the UK’s RSSB (Rail Safety Standards Board) has awarded a grant of £1.25 million, aims to both reduce weight and optimise vertical and transverse stiffness in order to decrease vehicle operating costs, infrastructure damage and environmental impact.

Marco Gehr, COO, ELG Carbon Fibre. © Inside Composites

At the show, the company promoted its range of technologies, product samples and demonstrator parts produced with its Carbiso product range. Inside Composites met with Marco Gehr, Chief Operating Officer, to ask about the company’s direction, as well as current developments.

What are you promoting at this year’s show?

Marco Gehr: The major products that we are showcasing this week are nonwoven products; the Carbiso M nonwoven mat version produced from 100% recycled carbon fibre, as well as a thermoplastic version Carbiso TM, where we blend the recycled carbon fibres with thermoplastic fibres like PP or PA. Both products are used in traditional composites manufacturing, either in wet compression or dry compression moulding processes.

At JEC World this year, we are also featuring several demonstrator parts to showcase the material use and demonstrate that ELG products are moving into series production. For example, we are currently collaborating with Gurit, which is using our material to prepreg it and then use for component manufacturing.

Carbiso M and TM nonwoven mats. © ELG Carbon Fibre

What are the main markets for this range of products?

MG: The main markets for us are electronics, as well as automotive. In electronics, our products are primarily used in form of chopped tow materials, Carbiso CT and CT+, for reinforcement of engineering plastics. Those compounds are then injection moulded into parts for tablets and laptops.

Obviously, the automotive industry is one of our major target markets –  that is where we have a lot of projects in the pipeline. We are working on the development of the end applications together with OEM’s and Tier 1 manufacturers.

Have you recorded an increased interest in your carbon fibre products?

MG: Definitely. The increase in demand has been very noticeable. For example, we launched our nonwoven products in late 2016, and last year we began to see real engagement with a variety companies along the value chain with the interest to apply these materials for the development of next generation cars.

We expanded our technical service team last year in order to support these companies and advise them on how to use these materials because they behave completely different to virgin carbon fibre products.

Carbiso M nonwoven mats. © ELG Carbon Fibre

This year, you won the JEC Innovation Award…

MG: Yes. The railway project that kicked off last year is publicly funded by the RSSB, a UK body. We work together with Alstom Transport as the OEM, and Magma Structures, who is responsible for the design and the manufacture of the components.

The first demonstrator will be a full composite bogie frame for use in rail vehicles, replacing the metal structure, contributing to a huge weight saving, as well as bringing the benefits for the service life – resulting in less electricity usage, less wear of the tracks, which is a significant effect. The project is expected to conclude in February 2019.

How important is JEC for the company?

MG: JEC World is the number one composites show where companies need to be present to keep the momentum going with suppliers and customers. We want to stay at the forefront of the evolving recycling industry. I would say that we had the best show ever this year because we were extremely busy throughout the event, holding one meeting after the other. The interest was significant.

I think the major change to the previous years was that we now have actual parts that we can show and this provides customers with inspiration to think about potential applications. This way, we can show them how ideas turn into reality.

ELG Carbon Fibre has been awarded the JEC Innovations Awards in the Rail Category. © Inside Composites

Have you noticed a growing interest in applications that are more aesthetic than functional?

MG: We have seen an increase in enquiries over the last year for products that would add to the visual characteristics in a car – not structural at all. I think it is because of the different material look that we can offer. Everybody is used to the woven, virgin carbon fibre look. Now designers want to change up the aesthetics and the nonwoven material offer a very nice finish, particularly when you gelcoat the surface, making it appealing to the automotive industry.

Tell me more about the expansion at your Coseley facility.

MG: The expansion is related to our existing facility in the UK. We are replacing our current abatement system with a new, more efficient one. This which will enable us to run the furnace reclamation process at a much higher capacity and that will happen within the next six months. A similar project that we have worked on for the last two years is our compounding plant, which will also come online in the fourth quarter this year. We will then be able to convert the reclaimed fibres into a compound that goes back into the market for injection moulding and further extend our product range.

ELG Carbon Fibre planned this expansion because we see the increasing demand and we are thinking ahead of the current market situation. We already have a number of automotive projects in the pipeline. Our partners order small volumes at the moment because they are still in the development phase, but in two-three years, we will need to be able to serve the market with hundreds of tonnes of material. To be ready for that, we have kicked off our expansion plan.

Carbiso CT+. © ELG Carbon Fibre

Any plans for overseas facilities?

MG: We can serve the European market from our existing facility in the UK and then the next steps would be overseas, and most likely, the first targeted market would be Asia followed by America.

What is the main objective for this year?

MG: The main focus for ELG Carbon Fibre this year is to push forward the projects we initiated last year. These are in the development mode right now, which means that you need to have a close feedback loop with a customer, you need to optimise the manufacturing process, you might need to optimise the product itself. That is what we are working on in particular with our technical service and engineering team.

How important is the green aspect to the manufacturing process?

MG: It is a very important factor, especially in the automotive industry. Most OEMs use the LCA analysis as material selection criteria and virgin carbon has a very negative environmental impact, which is why you need to drive a car for a very long time until you have a payback in the use life. But with recycled material, the story completely changes, because we use only one tenth of the energy that is required to produce 1kg of virgin material. So the materials that we are using are directly competitive to other traditional materials from a global warming perspective.

Are there any trends that you think are currently driving the composites industry?

MG: The environmental awareness has always been one driver, in Europe in particular, because of the regulations. Generally speaking I think the main drivers in the last couple of years have been the lightweighting potential and the material performance benefits to ensure the cars are more efficient and comply with the regulations with regards to the CO2 emissions.

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