May 13 – Carbon Fiber Fever

I woke up well rested and excited to finally see the company I’m doing my presentation on: SGL Carbon in Meitingen. SGL is the last company visit, so I had been waiting for nearly a week and a half for it. I wasn’t nervous for it having already been on four company visits. I felt accustomed to the general format of company visits – the presentation followed by the factory tour and maybe a lunch. Because after the visit our group would only have two days to prepare our whole presentation, we had done research and formed many questions to ask the presenter. On the twenty-minute ride to Meitingen, I felt relaxed and prepared.

At this point, despite my research into the company, I still didn’t really know and understand what carbon fiber is. It was sort of a goal of mine to understand what it is by the end of the day.

SGL Carbon Headquarters

The company presentation was given by an executive of SGL’s innovation department, Tilo Hauke. The first part of the presentation was hard for me to follow along since it was mostly chemistry based and my brain doesn’t really work like that. Although I couldn’t really follow along his technical explanation, I finally understood that carbon fiber is a much lighter substitute for steel and aluminum. It has many uses in various industries, but the automotive industry is where the plurality of SGL products are supplied to. After the presentation, we were able to lift items made from carbon fiber to understand how light it is. I lifted a car door and wow, it was really light.

The major fallback of carbon fiber, which Mr. Hauke made clear, is the price. He explained the extensive process of producing carbon fiber, which includes heating up the material to 3000 degrees Celsius. I could not understand much of the process because it was chemistry heavy, but I understood why it costs around 7x greater than steel to produce. This may be a reason why only high-end car brands such as BMW are SGL’s large customers. A car made with lots of carbon fiber would be more expensive to make and therefore more expensive to buy. However, one of the megatrends in the auto industry is a push toward lighter cars. Carbon fiber is about 25% lighter than steel. The auto industry will likely turn toward carbon fiber in the future as a way to reduce the weight of cars.

Also, SGL is also a major producer of graphite, even though the Meitingen plant only produces carbon fiber. Another megatrend of the auto industry is increased electromobility. This means that cars will be more reliant on batteries, which use the graphite that SGL produces. Overall, from the presentation I understand that SGL is a diversified company with a bright future. They are the leader of carbon fiber in the auto industry and have a flexible business model – in 2015 they sold their steel business to produce more carbon fiber.

The factory tour was very technical, so it was hard for me to understand a lot of it. A part that stuck out is that they only have 3 or 4 employees working at a time in the whole factory. (I’m pretty sure we saw all of them on the tour.) This means that their machines are almost entirely automated, and the workers are mainly there in the event that something goes wrong. We also got to touch pieces of carbon fiber. I was impressed of how strong the material was. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t plastic.

After a delicious lunch of rice and cooked vegetables and a twenty-minute bus ride home, it was almost immediately time to get down to our presentation. I settled in for a much-needed power nap which was supposed to last for about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, it lasted about two hours. I woke up twenty minutes after we were supposed to leave to go the University to work with the German students. I rushed over in a panic and had to navigate the tram system alone for the first time with no WiFi. I was kind of freaking out. I almost got on the wrong tram twice. Who knows where I would have ended up. Fortunately, there was WiFi around a café so I called Maya and she directed me to the right tram stop. Thankfully, I was not the only one who slept in. Ravi and Eamonn ended up joining us at the university even later.

It was nice to finally have enough information to work with for the presentation. We spent much of the time collecting information and putting it into a document. We were very productive, even though it had been a long day. When we came back from the university, we had most of the information collected, but had no completed slides. The girls all went out to a Mexican restaurant called Enchiladas, which helped me destress. However, I went to bed a little discontent, knowing the next day would be long and stressful, but at the same time excited to see the city of Ulm.

My Tacos at Enchiladas

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