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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 28, 2011 at 9:21 AM

UW Lamborghini lab in top gear, Aventador next

One of my favorite stories over the past few years was about the lab that Lamborghini opened at the University of Washington in 2009 to research and develop composite materials.

The story just keeps getting better.

On Tuesday at a car show in Geneva, Lamborghini is taking the wraps off the first production car to come fully through the lab, through its entire gestation process.

Called the Aventador, it’s a $370,000 Batmobile that goes from zero to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds.

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The Aventador’s bare body — before the V-12 motor and other parts are added — weighs just 504.9 pounds.

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That’s because of a carbon-fiber design tested in the basement of the UW’s ornate aeronautics and astronautics building.

The Aventador is a big reason the UW Lamborghini lab exists.

Lamborghini has used carbon-fiber components for decades even though it’s been outrageously expensive to manufacture.

When the company decided to build its next flagship production car with a carbon monocoque body — a single shell of carbon-reinforced plastic — it approached Paolo Feraboli, a UW assistant professor of aircraft materials and structures and a former Lamborghini employee who also worked on the Boeing 787.

Feraboli told Lamborghini in 2007 that its only option was to adopt new, more efficient manufacturing technologies like Boeing’s and abandon the techniques the car company had used for the past 30 years.

“That’s how the lab occurred,” Feraboli said.

Lamborghini then spent millions setting up the lab and a new factory in Italy to produce the Aventador and future models built with composite materials.

Aventador is the name of a famous Spanish bull. They could have called this one the Husky instead.

“Pretty much every piece — every composite piece — has come through here,” Feraboli said, explaining that the UW lab did quality control, process improvement and mechanical testing to verify the parts’ strength and stiffness.

In Seattle, the lab is a sort of hub for Lamborghini to work with the school, Boeing and other partners, including golf-club manufacturer Callaway and Intel. This team is already working on future Lamborghinis, which may include wireless sensors embedded into the carbon components.

Other companies are also seeking the lab’s help developing new products. One is looking into an e-reader with its entire case made out of ultralight carbon fiber and another is developing carbon-fiber bike helmets. Feraboli said he’s also working with another large carmaker that he wouldn’t name.

The lab also helped Lamborghini produce a one-off concept car called the Sesto Elemento (below) that was shown in Paris in September, previewing some of the technologies in the Aventador.

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The biggest advance is mostly hidden, in the manufacturing of the monocoque. The new system reduces the number of times components have to be cured under heat and pressure in an autoclave. Only one trip to the autoclave is required, and the cured shell then serves as a mold for additional carbon parts that are cured with a different process Lamborghini developed, which uses carbon fiber mats impregnated with resin.

Feraboli said these improvements helped Lamborghini increase its output of carbon shells from a pace of two per week, when it was making the limited-production Reventon supercar, to four a day.

The cost per raw shell has also fallen from $100,000 to less than $15,000 apiece.

Feraboli said the manufacturing technologies will be used by Lamborghini’s parent company, Audi, for higher-production cars and eventually its mainstream sedans.

“The Aventador is the first step,” he said. “Now we’re going to be able to build with intensive carbon fiber other vehicles. With those technologies we’re looking at reducing even further the cost. We’re looking at potentially making cars such as the A8 or the A6 out of carbon fiber.”

Lamborghinis don’t really need to go faster. There aren’t many places to drive around 200 mph, Chief Executive Stephan Winkelmann said in a news release last week.

So the key to improving performance — and lowering emissions — is reducing the cars’ weight, he explained.

“Every new Lamborghini will make use of this carbon-fiber technology for optimum weight reduction,” he said.

In a media briefing at its new factory last week, Lamborghini noted that it decided to produce its new carbon monocoque completely in-house, because of the complex materials and process involved.

Maybe that was another lesson it learned from Boeing.

(This appeared in today’s paper)

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Comments | More in | Topics: Automotive, aventador, Boeing

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