Your friendly neighborhood body repair shop won’t help if you crash a Lamborghini Aventador.
So a damaged component is like an iceberg—the worst of it might be under the surface.
The super-fast, V12-powered machine is built around a monocoque made entirely out of carbon fiber, and many of its body panels are also crafted from the lightweight material. Repairing carbon fiber presents a unique set of challenges. It can’t be welded or banged back into shape, and no amount of body filler will cover up a crack. So, what happens when one of them gets wrapped around a palm tree?
Anticipating the demand for quality repairs all over the world, Lamborghini teamed up with research partner Boeing and created a team of on-demand mechanics called Flying Doctors. Digital Trends went behind the scenes for a look at what happens when a car needs to be mended in a faraway corner of the globe.
Only the best
“You can’t fly a broken plane, right? Technicians travel to wherever it’s stuck and fix it on-location. We decided to do the same thing with our cars,” explains Attilio Masini, Lamborghini’s head of materials technology and manufacturing engineering. The program was announced shortly after the Aventador made its debut in early 2011.
There are only four Flying Doctors at the factory. They’re all certified to repair damaged aeronautic composite components by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That means they know carbon fiber well enough to rebuild an airliner like the 787 Dreamliner if needed. It’s not all about repair skills, though. The job also requires a tremendous amount of patience, and the ability to work well under pressure.
Making contact, mending contact
The Flying Doctors are summoned by a dealer, not by a customer. For example, imagine you go straight where the road turns left and your prized Aventador S ends up crumpled up like a recycled can of pop. The Flying Doctors will examine pictures of the damage and a report with details of the crash before deciding whether the car can be repaired. If it’s salvageable, they commission a third-party company to perform a non-destructive inspection (NDI) in order to understand the extent of the damage, and provide an estimate. They fly out only when the dealer receives the green light from the owner.
Making a mistake usually means starting over. That might not sound so bad, but when you’re under the Middle Eastern sun it’s an atrocious thought.
Lamborghini stores chests that contain the tools required for carbon fiber repair in strategic locations around the globe. Some are in the United States, others in the Middle East, and a few in Asia. The gear that can’t be easily stored for – various reasons – follows the Doctors everywhere they go, and the carbon fiber is kept in an icebox at about zero degrees Fahrenheit until it’s ready to be used.
“Carbon fiber is applied in layers, so a damaged component is like an iceberg. The worst of it might be under the surface,” Casper Steenbergen, the head of the Flying Doctors team, tells us.
The Flying Doctors use x-rays and ultra-sound technology to get a clear idea of what they’re working with, and how much of the car is really busted. Sometimes, they get lucky and the damage is only superficial. Other times, hairline cracks form in the bottom layers and risk causing much bigger issues down the road.
The time it takes to repair a car largely depends on the scope of the damage. Some tasks take a few hours, while others take over a week. The cost varies greatly, too.
“[The price] really depends on the type of damage and where the car is located. Many factors play a role. Normally, the repair of the CFRP monocoque is just a small portion of the total repair cost,” Steenbergen told us.
Learning the trade
We venture into the Flying Doctors’ workshop to get a taste of what their job is like, minus the jet lag and the extreme weather conditions. They show us how to repair a hole in a very basic, rectangular piece of carbon fiber. That’s plenty challenging for a carbon fiber newbie.
The first step is to sand down the area around the damage – so far, it’s like repairing a metal panel. The similarities stop there, however. With the sander out of the way, we begin carefully applying new layers of carbon fiber over the hole one piece at a time. We start with a large round piece that covers the surface we sanded, and gradually add smaller circles. The last layer is about the size of a dime.
It sounds simple, but it’s one of those meticulous, measure-twice-and-cut-once jobs. Making a mistake usually means starting over. When you’re in a climate-controlled room, that doesn’t sound so bad; when you’re under the Middle Eastern sun, it’s an atrocious thought.
Once all the layers are applied, we cover the part with a thin piece of plastic held in place with double-sided tape. We then use a purpose-built vacuum attachment to suck out air that’s still trapped between the carbon fiber. Air is the enemy of carbon fiber; bubbles baked in between the layers compromise appearance and rigidity.
Being a frequent-flying, globe-trotting technician is one of the most awesome jobs in the world.
When you make a part out of carbon fiber, it needs to cure in an oven for a few hours before it’s ready to be used. The process is the same when you make a repair, but the Flying Doctors can’t dismantle one of the factory’s ovens and bring it with them. Instead, they put a heating pad over the part and hook it up to a hot bonder that maintains a steady 250 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two hours.
The part is then thoroughly checked for structural soundness. What happens next depends on what’s being repaired. Some parts are hidden out of view so they only need minor finishing work. Others need to be painted, clear-coated, or both, before they’re put back on the car.
The Flying Doctors have repaired about 45 cars in numerous cities ranging from London to Beijing. When they’re not on the road, they stay busy in the Lamborghini workshop, which is a stone’s throw from the factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy. They never know where they’ll go next; it’s part of what makes being a frequent-flying, globe-trotting technician one of the most awesome jobs in the world.
- The most expensive cars in the world
- DARPA is building a robotic space mechanic to fix satellites in orbit
- How GMC built a carbon-fiber truck bed that laughs at cinder blocks
- Carbon fiber is making Casio’s new connected G-Shock watches even tougher
- What is the Hyperloop? Here’s everything you need to know