Have you ever wondered what all the fuss is about when it comes to carbon fiber luggage?
Well we have. So to answer this question for ourselves, we have done some research into the material itself and the luggage that it is turned into. It turns out that there is far more to this space age material than meets the eye... and we decided to share what we found here.
We would like to be very transparent about something. We do not own any carbon fiber luggage. We have examined and handled several carbon fiber suitcases as part of this research but we have no data or experience regarding how well these suitcases work in the real world.
The balance of our research was done mainly through conversation directly with the manufacturers. Most of them were very accommodating. Far more accommodating than many of the other mainstream brands.
What's on This Page:
1) A brief history of Carbon Fiber material
2) About Carbon Fiber Fabric
3) How is Carbon Fiber fabric made into luggage?
4) What to look for in a Carbon Fiber Suitcase
5) What makes Carbon Fiber luggage so good?
6) Who makes Carbon Fiber luggage
7) What about carbon fiber luggage made in China?
8) What are the downsides of carbon fiber luggage?
9) Why are carbon fiber suitcases so expensive?
11) The Suitcases
12) Frequently asked questions
The first known carbon fibers where produced by Joseph Swan in 1860 to be used in making light bulbs. These were very primitive in comparison to today's material. They were less that 80% carbon.
In 1958, Roger Bacon, while working for Union Carbide, created the first "high performance" carbon fiber that could be relatively easily replicated. Further refinement in 1963 pushed the product much close to what we know today.
More importantly, over time, with improved production methods the costs have continued to be reduced. In the early 2000s carbon fiber cost 35 times the cost of steel!
Through out the 1960's research was done to capitalize on the high weight to strength ratio of these fibers. These fibers are extremely small - 5 to 10 micrometers in diameter. The goal was to find a way to bundle the fibers together to make larger moldable materials similar to fibreglass.
Much of this research was driven by the aerospace industry and In 1968 a carbon fiber fan assembly was installed in a Rolls-Royce engine fitted into an airplane operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
Today, this carbon fiber is found in everything from cars to firearms.
The technical term for carbon fiber is actually Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP). It consists of two parts; the matrix and the reinforcement. The matrix is usually a polymer resin, such as epoxy. This glues the reinforcements together into what ever shape your desire. Of course, in the case of CFRP, the reinforcement is carbon fiber. These fibers have high tensile strength and they are what provides the strength to the CFRP.
The fibers are far too small to make them very useful on their own so they are bundled into larger fibers called a "tow". Tow is a word from the textile industry that describes a broken fiber. In the artificial fiber industry, a tow is an untwisted bundle of continuous filaments. Imagine these tows to be like creating a length of yarn that will be knitted into something.
Tows come in various industry standard sizes. These are 1K, 2K, 3K, 6K and 12K. These are known as normal or "small Tows". They are also known in the industry as T700. The K represents 1000 so a 1K tow contains 1000 fibers, a 2K tow contains 2000 fibers and so on.
3K tows are the most common size fibers used to make carbon fiber luggage. It is quite rare to see 1K and 2K tows used in anything as they are more expensive to manufacture. As the tows get larger, they become more brittle and of limited use. This makes 6K and 12K tows something that you do not see everyday even though they are much less expensive to produce.
Now that we have our tows (yarn), it needs to be flattened before is can be woven into a fabric sheet. This flattening orients all of the fibers in the exact same direction making maximum use of the fibers strength. The flattening process is called "spreading" and results in a ribbon-like product - spread tow fabric (STF). A 3K spread tow is usually around 1.5mm wide by 0.15mm thick.
Now these tows can be woven into a variety of designs and patterns.
There is a process called Prepreg (pre-inpregnation) that applies an epoxy resin to the material to prepare it for molding without the need for curing agents or other steps to get it ready to be placed into the mold. Some luggage manufacturers prefer carbon fiber fabric made using this method as it requires the least amount of resin resulting in slightly lighter shells.Some qualities of Carbon Fiber fabric:
Turning carbon fiber material into luggage is a tricky operation. Most hard sided luggage is produced using a two-part molding process. This can be easily done because the shell polymer material can be heated until it is liquified to the point where it can be injected into a mold and cured in place.
You cannot use this process with carbon fiber because it contains the fibers that cannot be pumped into a mold and retain their orientation. The carbon fiber material comes in a sheet that looks much like a piece of fabric. This must be cut, shaped and then laid into the the mold entirely by hand. This is why carbon fiber luggage can be so expensive. It is not a very forgiving process and it requires highly trained and attentive personnel. If there are any mistakes made during the production, the costly materials are not easily recycled and are usually discarded.
These molds are usually made from fiberglass, carbon fiber, or aluminum. Before applying the carbon fiber material, they are polished and a release agent is applied to ensure that the resin does not adhere to the mold as well as making removing the final piece easier.
The woven carbon fiber material is laid into the mold and if needed, resin is applied. If the two-part resin is applied before the material is laid down, this is called wet layup. If resin is pulled into the dry material and mold using a vacuum, this process is called infusion.
If the carbon fabric has been pre-preg'd (pre-inpregnated with resin) it can be laid directly into the mold and positioned easily.
Once the technician is certain that all of the carbon fiber fabric pieces are in perfect alignment, the mold and carbon fiber fabric are moved into an autoclave where they are subjected to heat and high pressure until the resin has set and hardened.
The images below show technicians from Iltatro preparing several carbon fiber shells for the autoclave using the infusion method and 3K tow carbon fiber fabric.
Carbon fiber luggage is not exactly like traditional hard shell luggage so there are a few things that you will need to keep and eye out for...
The first and most important thing to look out for are fakes and frauds and the nearly real carbon fiber suitcases. As some of the real high-end carbon fiber suitcases can fetch over $10,000 there are some less than honest manufacturers who have used less expensive materials and production processes to create luggage that looks like real carbon fiber but is far from it.
These cases are usually made from polycarbonate. If caught, the fraudster can claim that there is carbon in the shell material - and they would be correct. It just is not carbon fiber.
Another way to cut costs yet increase profit is to laminate the carbon fiber fabric directly onto a fiberglass sub chassis. This saves an enormous amount of cost in skilled labor required to carefully fit carbon fiber fabric pieces into a mold. Unfortunately, these suitcases are much heavier than their true carbon fiber counterparts so you gain nothing in return.
When buying carbon fiber luggage, it is very important to make sure that the shells are made from only 3K tow carbon fiber. Any higher a number (6K) with make the case cheaper to construct but more brittle and susceptible to cracking or breaking.
Some manufacturers are blending carbon fiber tows with Kevlar tows to make a fabric that is similar to carbon fiber but it is not as strong.
Most carbon fiber suitcases are considered luxury items and you have a right to expect a luxury product. The lining should be exquisite, the hardware should be strong and attractive - as in chromed and it should just feel luxurious. Anything less and you have been had.
After these items above, we still recommend sticking to all of the trappings of a safe suitcase. Select a case that uses latches to close, not zippers. The hardware should be as strong as the case so some type of metal would be best.To sum up:
One last item that is not related to the actual luggage but the manufacturing company. Many of these suitcases cost a great deal of money. When spending this kind of cash, you have a right to expect nothing less than excellent customer service. I suggest that before you buy, you reach out to the company that you are interested in and get a feel for their customer relations.
While researching this piece, I contacted most of the brands listed below and I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly each one of them replied an how useful the information they provided proved to be.
Good is a rather broad term. Carbon fiber luggage is very good but also very expensive. The reason why it is considered to be very good is due to the properties of the material that the outer shells are made from. Carbon fiber is extremely strong - stronger than steel - and yet very light. In fact, carbon fiber is ten times stronger than steel and yet it is five times lighter. So it is a perfect material for making luggage where strength and weight are some of the biggest concerns.
Surprisingly, most of the mainstream brands have passed over carbon fiber materials in the production of their suitcases. This is most likely a perceived higher price for the raw materials that result in a very small market for these cases. Also, creating luggage using carbon fiber is very much a hands-on process and this may not fit into how these companies prefer to manufacture their suitcases.
We contacted all of the major luggage brands and they all, except Tumi and Zerohalliburton have no plans to release any carbon fiber luggage anytime soon.
There are many lesser known brands that do produce carbon fiber suitcases. This is a list (in alphabetical order) of everyone we could find:
We have been scratching our heads about this... Why are carbon fiber suitcases made in China so less expensive than one made in the West? The best answers that we can come up with are these:
The first thought that comes to mind is price. Carbon fiber luggage can be extremely expensive. It would be awful to lose a $5000 suitcase let alone what's inside of it...
The second downside may come as a surprise but it is weight. After researching around seventeen different suitcases, we have found that although carbon fiber luggage is lighter than conventional hard side cases, it not not much lighter. Usually a carbon fiber suitcase will shave a pound or two off the weight of its polycarbonate or polypropylene cousins. If that is worth the price to you then we are happy for you.
Our last concern is more of a speculation than fact but I would be worried about handing my very expensive suitcase over to an airline knowing that the case alone is worth thousands of dollars. Crooks will know this too. Chances are good that it could disappear, never to be seen again, just because it is worth so much - forgetting what the contents might be worth. Unless you fly on your own private plane, your suitcase may be at risk of being stolen.
Yes, carbon fiber suitcases are usually very expensive. This partly due to how manufacturers have treated the market. By this we mean that the top brands have all but ignored this material mainly because it is so difficult to work with in bulk. Remember, every single piece of fabric must be lovingly placed into the molds by hand. This make mass production using carbon fiber nearly impossible.
This has left manufacturing luggage with this material in the hands of only the most high priced luxury brands who capitalize on the "bespoke uniqueness" of each piece.
It looks like China may be trying to change this but until one of the major brands accepts this material into their regular line, it will always be reserved for only the rich and famous.
Researching the carbon fiber luggage manufacturing process has been fascinating and eye opening. We had no idea what skill, precision and effort went into each of these cases. No wonder they are wildly expensive!
After careful consideration, we do not feel that the cost is justified in the extra protection provided or the reduction in weight. There may be some very special cases where this luggage is uniquely suited but it is far out of the realm of the regular travelling public.
This is an American company based in El Segundo, California. They make several carbon fiber carry suitcases. What's unique about these bags are the over sized "indestructible GravityRoll™ wheels". These wheels are warranteed for life. (The case has a 1-year warrantee)
These cases are built with a partially solid carbon fiber body married with a ballistic nylon fabric top. One thing that makes this case a safe suitcase are the puncture resistant YKK zippers.
This UK company is based in Hertfordshire, England. They have been in business since 1932. Known for their tradition "train journey" inspired travel cases, they typically make luxury suitcases comprised of vulcanized fibreboard but released a carbon fibre version of their classic design.
Unfortunately, once the limited supply was sold out, they went out of stock for ever. Globe Trotter has informed me that they do plan to release a new carbon fiber line later this year.
Gogocarbon is a company based in Taiwan. They mainly fabricate motorcycle and car parts from carbon fiber fabric (hence the name). They do make this rather futuristic looking suitcase.
This case is available in two colors - the one shown and black. This case is a perfect example of a mixed carbon fiber/Kevlar product. It measures 31.31" X 14.96" X 13.78" (L-W-H) and weighs: 10.15 pounds
This is a beautiful carbon fiber case! Henk's moto is "Ultimate luxury travel goods" and it show. Henk is designed by the world famous frogdesign group. This company is behind many products that you know but don't know. Amongst many others, frogdesign created is known for their work with Apple.
These cases are made with only the best materials and can be customized to suit your personal tastes. They come with some neat features like retractable wheels with auxiliary wheels for rolling the case through tight spaces like airplane aisles, a security leather to keep your case from wandering off and a wide choice of finishes. It also has locking top accessible holders for glasses, pens and whatnot. All of the pockets and side doors lock through a single central locking system.
Ilatro is an Italian brand that was founded in 2015 and is located in Brindisi, Italy. All of their suitcases are fabricated in Italy. They produce three carry-on cases that are super light-weight.
This company seems a little strange because it looks like they are primarily a raw carbon fiber materials manufacturer yet they have created this very nice looking suitcase.
This bag is a hybrid of 3K twill carbon fiber and Kevlar fabric. It weighs an impressive 3.5 kg. That is great for a 20 inch case. It is available in red, black, yellow and blue.
Lamborghini and TeknoMonster have teamed up to create this branded carbon fiber suitcase. It is actually an Aurum suitcase with added Lamborghini logos.
This is a gorgeous suitcase and if you are a Lamborghini fan, it will be a must-have suitcase.
This is not your usual Chinese fly-by-night company. They are an offshoot of the department of Material science and engineering of Tsinghua University and Joint Laboratory for Carbon fiber composite of Bejing University of Chemical Technology.
They offer two different sized 100% carbon fiber suitcases that are priced very attractively. They are both fully lined and the larger of two also has a locking outer laptop sleeve.
Smarter Luggage is another reputable Chinese luggage manufacturer located in Dong Guan city, Guang Dong province, China. They are ISO9001 certified and with a workforce of 500 skilled workers they can crank out between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces of luggage per day!
They are a very large wholesaler behind many popular brand names. Their luggage looks great and on the lower end of the expense spectrum.
Carbonfibergear is a family-owned business located outside of Baltimore, Maryland. They have been in operation since 2007. This company makes a wide variety of products from carbon fiber fabric. When we say they make a wide variety - we mean they make a very wide variety.
Swiss Luggage works in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Engineering College in Burgdorf, Switzerland.
They make a range of four suitcases, all made from 100% carbon fiber and all are made in the United States:
TecknoMonster is an Italian lifestyle brand. They are well known in the sports, design and technology worlds. Recently, they have broadened their line to include carbon fiber luggage. The interiors are customizable to your tastes.
This is the company that makes Lamborghini's co-branded luggage.
They have a wide range of products to choose from and they are on the lower end of the price scale:
• Akille (zippered aluminum/carbon fiber carry-on)
• Bynomio Cabina Small (carbon fiber carry-on)
• Bynomio Cabina Big (carbon fiber carry-on)
• Bynomio Maxi
• Elfoquottro (carbon fiber carry-on)
• ElfoDue Small
• ElfoDue Big
• Panama Small
• Panama Big
• Sinossi Small
• Sinossi Big
• Trepertre (zippered aluminum/carbon fiber carry-on)
All of these cases come with at least the minimum level of finish:
Tumi is a brand recognized around the world. They have flirted with making carbon fiber luggage as far back as 2010 when they teamed up with Lexus to create branded luggage for the luxury car maker. It was aptly called the Lexus LFA Luggage by Tumi.
Tumi's most recent carbon fiber offering was the Carbon Fiber Eastwood International Expandable Carry-On. It met with limited success and sold out quickly. Unfortunately, Tumi has informed us that they will not be making anymore.
Ventris Lifestyle is a Japanese company located in Osaka, Japan. They pride themselves on high quality and clever design. The company website talks about their love of luxury and exclusivity - like only the Japanese can do.
They offer a solid range of nine carbon fiber suitcases - including two different wine cases! Now that's luxury! They are not the cheapest but these cases look gorgeous.
Their cases are made of 3K tow carbon fiber and are fully customizable to your needs. They come standard with TSA locks and their unique forged carbon fiber joints.
Vladimir Prochazka is a European luxury lifestyle brand from the Czech Republic. They have been in business since 1930.
They have developed three very unique shaped carbon fiber suitcases. They look like "bat cases". The two regular cases each weight 1.9kg but the Ultra light version weighs on 0.9kg! That's only 1.98 pounds!
These cases are on the small side but great for weekend or overnight trips.
Rowbree is a luxury lifestyle brand that specializes in producing high quality goods made from carbon fiber. A subsidiary of Polar Manufacturing Ltd., they are located in the United Kingdom. All of their manufacturing is done at their factory in the U.K.
They offer a range of luggage that is comprised of five cases sizes and styles in seven different exterior colors. All of their cases are made to order and feature a simple light-weight interior finish to help to reduce the weight of the case.
Zero Halliburton was the first to introduce the world to aluminum luggage in 1938. It's not surprising to see them embracing carbon fiber.
Their carbon fiber suitcases are hand crafted in Japan and assembled in the United States.
Unfortunately, they only make a 22" carry-on bag but it is covered by a five year warrantee and weighs a skinny 3.6 pounds.
We can only hope that they release a larger case someday but in conversations with Zerohalliburton, they told us that they have no plans to add any carbon fiber products to the present line. We really like this brand.
Carbon fiber luggage is much stronger and lighter than conventional luggage. Unlike that mass production techniques use to make conventional luggage, each piece of carbon fiber luggage is formed by hand to ensure proper fit and finish.
Yes, carbon fiber luggage can be X-rayed. Carbon has a very low density due to its low atomic weight (It is number 6 on the atomic scale). This makes it very easy for an X-ray beam to penetrate.
Yes, by far carbon fiber is the lightest material used for manufacturing luggage. This is assuming that it is being compared with polycarbonate, polypropylene or ABS materials of a similar thickness.
Yes, under extreme force carbon fiber can crack but it is unlikely that your luggage would experience forces even close to these.
Technically yes, carbon fiber fabric can be recycled. It can be ground down but this process breaks the long carbon fibers resulting in a severe reduction in tensile strength. It is much like down-recycling paper where the recycled product is always of a lower quality than the original recycled item.
No, unfortunately Samsonite does not currently make carbon fiber luggage.
No, Lojel does not currently make carbon fiber luggage.
No, Heys does not currently make carbon fiber luggage.
Carbon fiber derives its strength from the crystalline structure of the carbon atoms. They are aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber as the crystal alignment gives the fiber high strength-to-volume ratio.