Building colour confidence

Carbon fibre uses the Henry Ford attitude: ‘You can have any colour, as long as it’s black’. And it’s
here designers and engineers face a challenge. But, is that about to change?

Visually carbon fibre is striking. Its tightly packed weave, with lacquered finish, has come to symbolise cutting edge engineering and performance. But for those that want a look that's different, with colour, the options are limited.

Many applications simply opt to paint over the top, concealing the material underneath. So, does carbon fibre have an image problem?

"Carbon fibre has a lot of visual qualities, but colour is not one of them," says Marc Cohen, chief executive of Hypetex, a company set up to try and change this. "For me, the idea of having a colourised version of black carbon fibre is a fascinating."

The long road of development

As an avid F1 fan, Cohen was talking with friends around that typically English pastime, a pint of beer. The conversation stumbled upon, what the next big technology spun out of the race series would be? Bear in mind, this is pre-Dreamliner, A350 and at a time when carbon fibre held an even higher premium than it does today.

The concept of colourised carbon fibre was discussed and something inside Cohen was stirred to an extent that it convinced him it was worth investing not only his own money, but a decade and more of his life.

As we all know, it is one thing to come up with an idea, but making it happen is quite another. Eight years passed before a patented process to colourise carbon fibre was secured, and Hypetex was born. The colours on offer are bright and vibrant, and the material is available in over 90% of the pantone.

"We're the only people that have been able to actually do it," says Cohen. "People want to see the weave and the beauty of a carbon fibre construction, and not just have solid flat paint over the top."

Now, other composite producers offer colour by using various pigmentations in lacquer or resin systems, or by sneaking a colourised glass fibre in to the weave to give the appearance of some colour. But the approach was never satisfactory to Cohen.

"Injecting some sort of colour weave leaves a dull finish," he says. "We messed around with those techniques but stopped when we realised that it didn't look great. So what others are offering now is actually what we were doing five or six years ago."

Carbon fibre... but not as we know it?

So what makes Hypetex different? As you'd imagine the company is keen to protect its IP and not give too much away, but it did say the material is made of fibrous layers that include 'enhanced layers' of a fibrous nature. So is it carbon fibre?

"I wouldn't say it's 100% carbon fibre because the chemical compositions take something away from that. But it is a fibrous construct that has the same resin system and there's no compromise, whatsoever, in terms of the integrity of a structure."

Its development has left Hypetex with both opportunities and challenges going forward. The obvious challenge is getting the material in to high value industries such as motorsport and aerospace.

However, like initial development, this is an equally agonising and expensive process as the material undergoes due diligence and testing. So, in an interesting and bold move away from the industrial, Hypetex has turned instead to designer furniture.

"The quickest and most usable way into industry is through visual applications such as furniture because there's very little due diligence," says Cohen. "If we start talking to vehicle builders, they want to ascertain you're going to get 25 years without colour degradation and the warranty isn't under risk.

"At the moment, we are talking with a lot of industries and finding many are actually looking to do Joint Venture R&D with us." And this is all part of its business development: to build key licensee agreements with manufacturers and tapping into existing supply chains, rather than re-orchestrating the existing relationships already in place.

At present, finished Hypetex parts are produced using resin transfer systems (RTM) and the company is looking next at press mouldings. "It's the same process as normal carbon fibre, but with three or four additional ones," says Cohen. "So, of course, that does mean some extra cost."

Performance improvement?

Hypetex isn't just finding fans from a design background, it's also winning engineering acclaim as it is able to alter some of the physical properties of composite structures.

One of the surprising gains has been the materials enhanced UV resistance, a long standing bugbear for those using carbon fibre composites. Although not part of the initial brief, the improvement has been welcomed as the aging and resin bleeding normally associated with use at prolonged higher temperatures is no longer applicable.

And while there have been positive notes in terms of UV degradation, there have also been changes to other properties.

While there's not much difference to the overall integrity, the textual flexibility has increased by about 8-10%. While this reduction in stiffness and particularly the brittle failure mode is good for some, it is not so great for others.

"F1 like the brittleness for a very particular reason," says Cohen. "If you hit a wall at 200mph, you want to know what's going to fly off and what's not. Having us come in and mess around with those sorts of calibrations is not endearing."

But, despite any of these changes to the physical properties, people still seem to like Hypetex most for its visual appeal.

"We find ourselves actually breaking a lot of head wind with designers and product builders because they've never been able to properly finish composites," says Cohen. "We take all the visual beauty of carbon fibre and enhance it by adding a depth of colour that's not been seen before."

The obvious application for Hypetex is external parts, but this is likely to need more time for development, and to establish confidence in the engineering world.

Although the company is already well down the road of proving to industry its capabilities, it is still a long way off being able to build an aircraft, for example. For now, however, the plan is to develop and produce Hypetex as a prepreg that can be transported around the world, establishing its capability and building that colour confidence.

Justin Cunningham

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