A young man wearing a black lab coat with “Prototipi” on the back and a raging bull over the heart is enthusiastically talking about the history of carbon fiber. Behind him a machine flexes a honeycomb panel almost 4 inches before the panel cracks like a gunshot, fracturing but not quite breaking in half. My heart jumps out of my chest.
I’m standing in an unmarked building perched on the edge of the Interbay district in Seattle, the crucible of American aerospace industry. Boeing and Honeywell Aerospace are just a few miles away, and the fantastic yet somewhat problem-plagued 787 Dreamliner came to life here. It’s also home to this place, Lamborghini’s Advanced Composite Structures Laboratory, one of the only places outside of Boeing that can simulate lightning strikes, hail, birdstrikes, and engine failures. The lab is under the careful tutelage of one man: Dr. Paolo Feraboli. “I always wanted to build and design fighter jets,” he says, a light Italian lilt to his words. “I am not an engineer. I am a carbon-fiber designer.”
Feraboli got his mechanical engineering degree at the University of Bologna in Italy, and in the year he took off between undergrad and graduate school, worked for Lamborghini in Sant’Agata Bolognese as a composite engineering specialist, developing the composite body panels for the Murciélago roadster. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s now the proud owner of a bright orange Murciélago that he calls the “last great Lamborghini.”) He then got his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of Santa Barbara and spent some time working for Callaway Golf. In 2004 he headed to Virginia as a visiting fellow to work on mechanics and durability for NASA. He then took a professorship at the University of Washington where he taught in the department of aeronautics and astronautics, using his spare time to help Boeing develop commercial airplanes and the 787. In 2007 Lamborghini approached Feraboli to help start the Advanced Structural Composites Lab and, in 2013, he left his job at the university to work at the lab full time.
Under his direction, a five-person team tests, engineers, and creates works of carbon-fiber art, from the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento to more than 1,000 parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. According to Feraboli, the lab works with Lamborghini 90 percent of the time and spends the other 10 percent doing work for the aerospace industry and other consumer-goods companies.
Lab technicians use composite Nomex sandwich panels, designed for military-grade airplanes, as well as coated and uncoated carbon-fiber panels, to demonstrate how they test materials. In one test, technicians fire a steel cube at a panel using what looks like a giant potato gun, a gas cannon that can propel objects at speeds up to 500 mph. They also have a lightning-strike generator, one of only two in the country, and can generate 30 kilovolts of energy in one strike. Using these tools, the lab dreams up ideas for Lamborghini that are passed along to Bologna and approved or scrapped based on business needs. “The lab is a playground for us, and we are free to experiment and create what we want,” Feraboli says.
The traditional, time-intensive carbon-fiber forming process calls for carbon-fiber sheets and resin to be pressed into a coated mold that is then be heated and cured. It takes days to produce one part, and repairs are impossible. Feraboli believed that carbon-fiber manufacturing could be sped up by eliminating the traditional molding, heating, and curing process, so he started mixing chopped carbon-fiber sheets with soft-at-room-temperature resin, placing the mixture into a steel mold and heating it under intense, 2,000-psi pressure. The entire process, which takes as few as three minutes to complete, is called Forged Composite (FC) technology and has been patented by Lamborghini. The FC process took Feraboli and his team eight years to perfect. It eventually achieved FAA certification, and now more than 1,000 parts in the Boeing Dreamliner are created using FC. The materials can be repaired without reducing structural integrity, and the lab’s technicians travel all over the world to repair damaged parts. Once the process and material were certified, shifting from creating 787 pieces to creating cars was relatively simple.
The Aventador’s carbon-fiber monocoque was the first major car part to come out of the Advanced Composites Structures Lab. Unlike past Lamborghinis that used carbon-fiber composite pieces—including the automaker’s first structural carbon-fiber composite prototype, the Countach Evoluzione, as well as the Murciélago—the Aventador passed crash testing its first time through. “I know that my team and I were a huge part of what made the Aventador possible,” Feraboli says, “It was our baby.” When asked about the nearly 2-ton weight of the car, Feraboli gets frustrated.
“Everyone thinks that it’s the engine that adds to the weight. It’s not!” Feraboli told AUTOMOBILE. “Like in airplane manufacturing, everyone says, ‘OK, lets make the fuselage and the wings and tail out of light materials’—but then they attach all the pieces using steel connectors. Eventually you have tons of added weight. It’s the same thing in the Aventador, but when they are presented with this, they ignore it.”
With the launch of the Sesto Elemento at the Paris auto show in 2010, Feraboli got to stretch his creative carbon-fiber muscle. “We came up with the idea for the Sesto Elemento on a flight back from Bologna,” he says, “It took us just four months to make it a reality.” More than 80 percent of the Sesto is carbon fiber, including its innovative suspension control arms that represent the first time FC was used for mechanical parts. The trick, Feraboli says, is convincing Maurizio Regianni, the head of R&D at Lamborghini, that the carbon-fiber pieces work in production. “Regianni says that carbon fiber is the fat of the car. He tells me that until [he] can use that to make a part for the engine, he doesn’t care.”
Feraboli shows us a set of engine connecting rods that, according to Regianni, Lamborghini “hopes to use” in future cars. If the FC connecting rods work, the weight savings could be huge–as much as 39 percent over forged steel designs. Feraboli also unveiled a set of body-in-white scale models that show the breadth of FC’s capabilities; if Feraboli has his way, the next Lamborghini will have a single-piece, completely carbon-fiber fuselage that does away with those weighty fasteners he loathes so much.
“Forged Composite is the next thing for car design,” he says, “and if we can make it lighter, stronger, modular, and integrated, the sky is really the limit.”