Higher-volume cars get carbon fiber

By David Sedgwick
AUTOMOTIVE NEWS

Published: March 18, 2013 12:45 pm ET
Updated: March 18, 2013 12:56 pm ET

Image By: Dodge The 2013 SRT Viper GTS has a hood made with carbon fiber, a costly material that also is strong and lightweight.

Related to this story

Topics Sustainability, Automotive, Composites

DETROIT — Carbon fiber has finally broken out of its European supercar niche.

The 2013 SRT Viper and the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Corvette have carbon fiber hoods and other parts, and the Corvette's production is likely to top 20,000 units this year.

That's a far cry from the early days of carbon fiber, when a hand-built component took hours to produce and was too costly for volume vehicles.

That's the good news. The bad news is that carbon fiber is still expensive. The raw material for a carbon fiber part costs $10 to $15 a pound, according to one estimate.

That cost must fall to $5 a pound for economical mass production, industry insiders say.

Some suppliers are working hard to bring down the cost because carbon fiber is strong and lightweight. General Motors says the material is 10 times stronger than steel but weighs one-fourth as much.

A look at the production techniques of Plasan Carbon Composites, the supplier of hoods for the Viper and Corvette, illustrates some of the challenges.

Because the Viper's hood is so large, it is made by hand in a process that takes 90 minutes. In a plant in Bennington, Vt., workers place layer after layer of carbon fiber fabric pre-impregnated with resin on a mold in an autoclave, or special oven, which then is heated.

'Marines on the beach'

This costly technique, called pre-preg, produces the high-quality surfaces required for exterior body panels.

At a new plant in Walker, Mich., Plasan has shortened production of the Corvette hood to 17 minutes by substituting a pressure press for the autoclave. The pressure press can be heated more quickly than the autoclave.

Plasan CEO Jim Staargaard says his new process can produce more than 30,000 components annually -- enough to break out of the supercar niche.

"We're like the Marines on the beach," Staargaard boasts. "We're the first to do it."

But Staargaard acknowledges that the relatively slow pre-preg technique is ill-suited to produce the complex shapes required for structural components such as floorpans, cross-car beams, door intrusion beams and door pillars.

To make such parts, Staargaard believes the industry will adopt the less expensive resin transfer molding process. With resin transfer molding, the carbon fiber fabric is placed in a heated mold, and resin is injected into the mold under high pressure. This method reduces the production time for a component to three to 10 minutes.

Staargaard says Plasan likely will obtain the technology for resin transfer molding this year, perhaps through a corporate acquisition.

His timing looks good. Several automakers plan to introduce vehicles that use carbon fiber extensively.

BMW is developing a carbon fiber passenger cell -- a key portion of the body-in-white -- for its i3 electric vehicle that debuts next year. BMW is expected to produce 30,000 units a year.

The Alfa Romeo 4C sports car, which debuts this year, will have a carbon fiber chassis, according to the automaker. Fiat S.p.A. plans to produce 2,500 units in the first year.

Perhaps most significant about the Alfa Romeo 4C and the BMW i3 is their cost. Neither will carry the stratospheric sticker price of a supercar such as the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, which boasts a carbon fiber body plus a $2.2 million price tag.

Cost-cutting campaign

Meanwhile, each of the Detroit 3 is working to reduce the cost of carbon fiber.

In December, GM formed a partnership with Teijin Ltd. of Japan to develop carbon fiber composites for mass-market vehicles. To do so, Teijin has opened a technical center in suburban Detroit.

Likewise, Ford Motor Co. formed a joint venture with Dow Chemical Co. last year to develop low-cost carbon fiber suitable for high-volume production by late this decade.

And Chrysler Group says it's exploring new uses for the material after the introduction of a carbon fiber hood, roof and decklid on the Viper.

Mike Shinedling, the Viper's engineering launch manager, says the carbon fiber hood -- which weighs 65 pounds -- saved 40 pounds.

Shinedling declined to disclose the hood's cost. But he says the cost of carbon fiber has declined sharply since 2003, when the Viper's carbon fiber materials cost $35 per pound.

The wholesale cost of a replacement hood for the 2014 Viper will be less than the original Viper's fiberglass hood. "That shows some progress," Shinedling says.

The cost may decline more if suppliers can speed manufacturing and develop less expensive raw materials.

Yet another tactic is mixing carbon fiber with less costly fiberglass. The strip that holds the Viper's windshield in place, for instance, blends those two materials. Chrysler holds two patents for the process.

Carbon fiber's cost will fall further as other automakers adopt it. And that's starting to happen.

Continental Structural Plastics of suburban Detroit has won a contract to produce a hood and roof for an unnamed automaker for the 2016 model year.

CEO Frank Macher says annual production will exceed 10,000 units and his company will use resin transfer molding to make the parts.

"The results are fairly dramatic, and we're working on that right now," Macher says. "But there's a lot more work to be done."

He hopes to speed production by using a carbon fiber made from inch-long chopped fibers instead of long threads. This material is only about 70 percent as strong, but it's much cheaper. That might work well for the inner portion of hoods, Macher says.

With so much innovation under way, it is unclear which technologies will prevail. That's why automakers are signing nonexclusive contracts with their suppliers, Plasan's Staargaard says.

"No one is going to own this market," Staargaard says. "No one is sure who has the right answer. Everybody is hedging their bets. They are keeping their options open."


Comments

Higher-volume cars get carbon fiber

By David Sedgwick
AUTOMOTIVE NEWS

Published: March 18, 2013 12:45 pm ET
Updated: March 18, 2013 12:56 pm ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Composite bridge maker also leading the way in installation

August 22, 2014 1:21 pm ET

Lightweight, low maintenance and strong, fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) bridge decks finally are crossing the line from specialty projects to wider...    More

Image

Recycled HDPE prices climbing

August 22, 2014 11:26 am ET

North American selling prices for recycled grades of high density polyethylene resin have increased in recent months because of tight supplies of the ...    More

Image

Non-recyclable items gumming up the works at recycling centers

August 21, 2014 3:46 pm ET

The influx of all sorts of unacceptable items at recycling centers has gotten to the point that Charlotte, N.C.-based ReCommunity is trying to bring...    More

Image

Bayer, SCAC partner on water reuse project

August 21, 2014 12:48 pm ET

Bayer MaterialScience (BMS) and Shanghai Chlor-Alkali Chemical Co. Ltd. (SCAC) have entered into a preliminary agreement for the reuse of waste water ...    More

Image

Automakers look under the hood for the next lightweighting opportunities

August 20, 2014 1:06 pm ET

The automotive industry's current favorite target for lightweighting efforts is the powertrain, according to a recent survey.    More

Market Reports

Thermoformed Packaging 2014 Market Review & Outlook North America

This in-depth report analyzes economic and market trends, legislative/regulatory activity impacting supply and demand, business opportunities and threats, materials pricing, manufacturing technology, as well as growth strategies being implemented by thermoformed packaging companies.

Learn more

Pipe, Profile & Tubing Extrusion in North America 2014

U.S. demand for extruded plastics is expected to grow by 3 percent in 2014, with PVC remaining the largest segment.

Plastic pipe will post the strongest gains through 2018, continuing to take market share from competing materials in a range of markets.

Our latest market report provides in-depth analysis of current trends and their financial impact on the pipe, profile and tubing extrusion industry in North America.

Learn more

2014 Injection Molding Industry Report

GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY IN SIGHT FOR INJECTION MOLDERS IN 2014

In the wake of the economic turbulence earlier in this decade, molders today find themselves in much better shape. Molders are gaining a competitive advantage by investing in people, equipment and seeking inroads into new markets on a global scale.

Growth in the injection molding industry is going to be driven by low financing costs and a continued move to reshore some business.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

September 10, 2014 - September 12, 2014Plastics Caps & Closures 2014

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

More Events