Plasan finds carbon-fiber niche

By Rhoda Miel
News Editor

Published: September 21, 2012 6:00 am ET

The 2013 SRT Viper boasts Plasan’s carbon-fiber, low-weight body panels. (Chrysler Group LLC photo)

Related to this story

Topics Automotive, Materials, Suppliers

WIXOM, MICH. (Sept. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET)  — Plasan Carbon Composites’ current generation of automotive carbon fiber is out on the road now — 65 pounds’ worth of low-weight, high-speed body panels on the 2013 SRT Viper.

Plasan is getting ready for the next generation, investing $18 million on a plant in Walker, Mich., where five new presses are set to make parts starting in 2013 and boasting a 17-minute cycle time.

Beyond that, future generations of production capacity are under development at Plasan’s technology center in the Detroit suburb of Wixom, with tests on new resin chemistry and refining additional production techniques.

“Across the car companies, everybody’s got something they want to try out,” said President Jim Staargaard during a Sept. 17 interview at Plasan’s technology center.

Carbon-fiber composites have long been a holy grail for automakers that want to reduce weight and gain performance. The high production costs confined carbon fiber’s use to “supercars” for years until it began appearing in more mainstream, niche vehicles in 2004, such as General Motors Co.’s Corvette and the Viper.

___________________

   NOTE: Plasan President Jim Staargaard will speak about "Investing in carbon fiber for near-term production" at the Nov. 6-7 Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles 2012 conference in Livonia, Mich. (www.plasticsnews.com/plv2012).

___________________

For the new Viper, Plasan is using traditional autoclave manufacturing to mold the hood, roof and trunk lid. The roof itself is a breakthrough for the company, with an all-composite structure. The carbon fiber even stands up to federal safety rollover requirements without additional steel support.

Chrysler expects to sell 2,000 to 3,000 Vipers per year, which takes up a full production line at Plasan’s manufacturing site in Bennington, Vt. — six days a week, three shifts per day, Staargaard said.

Both the cost of the raw materials and the time required to make parts using autoclave has been a major hurdle for carbon-fiber composites to move forward in the auto industry. Multiple companies have been looking at a variety of approaches to solve the money and production problems.

German automaker BMW AG has garnered the most attention and taken the biggest approach, creating joint ventures to secure just the right grade of carbon-fiber raw materials in addition to developing in-house proprietary processing.

Its joint venture with SGL Carbon SE in Moses Lake, Wash., is even placed tactically to tap into a less-expensive source of energy from the local hydroelectric grid to reduce its costs, noted Nippani Rao, a 20-year veteran of the auto industry. Rao is now president of Rao Associates, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based consulting company.

To make carbon-fiber really competitive for space on mainstream cars, it needs to drastically reduce overall part prices, Rao said. A $5,000 carbon-fiber hood makes sense for a handful of low-volume, niche vehicles, but to find a home even on a $50,000 luxury sedan, that hood has to come in at a cost closer to $1,000.

Plasan is tackling the costs first through improved processing, then expanding into further improvements in the resin.

Current molding techniques, first developed for the aerospace industry, have a 92-minute cycle time, Staargaard said.

Plasan’s engineering manager Gary Lownsdale worked at cracking the production hurdles by essentially “reverse engineering” the autoclave process. For more than three years, Staargaard said, Lownsdale ran parts through the autoclave, stopping production every minute to pull out samples and determine exactly what was happening in the process — the temperatures, the pressures and what was needed to make a perfect part.

Lownsdale and his team then looked for the best way to replicate that process at a far faster cycle time.

They came up with a proprietary process that uses a compression press system originally developed for the wood composite industry, which must combine multiple layers of wood and adhesives, Staargaard said.

The company contracted with Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. of Tacoma, Wash., whose membrane presses were already in use for carbon-fiber-composite turbine blades for the wind-energy industry.

An initial small press went into place in Wixom for testing, and a full-scale press is there now, capable of turning out finished parts within 17 minutes.

That press and those parts were a vital part of proving Lownsdale’s and Plasan’s concept to scale up for full auto production.

“It’s much easier to get customers and the supply base to believe you when you’ve got something out there,” Staargaard said.

The new plant is a second key sign that carbon-fiber composites for the North American auto base are ready to become reality beyond niche vehicles.

While Plasan is careful not to talk about specifics, the very fact that it is spending $18 million and installing five presses in Walker is a good sign that there is a real business opportunity. Staargaard said more details on the company’s future projects will be announced during the next six to nine months.

Plasan’s parts will be shipped with a primer coat, ready to attach to the car body to be painted alongside other panels.

At the same time, Plasan is looking to build production in other processes, such as resin transfer molding using chopped fiberglass. The auto industry is looking to RTM to use carbon fiber as a replacement for steel in structural beams and other components.

“Up until now, we were limited by the autoclave,” Staargaard said. “Now we’re limited by the chemistry, but that’s going to change.”


Comments

Plasan finds carbon-fiber niche

By Rhoda Miel
News Editor

Published: September 21, 2012 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Americhem beats weather woes at start of 2014 for good fiscal year

November 26, 2014 9:45 am ET

Gains from the automotive and construction markets provided a strong fiscal 2014 for Americhem Inc.    More

Image

PE prices drop for first time in two years, PP down 5 cents

November 26, 2014 10:22 am ET

North American polyethylene buyers might want to circle November 2014 in red on their calendars — since PE prices this month have fallen for...    More

Image

Visteon in talks to sell its stake in Halla Visteon Climate Control JV

November 26, 2014 9:07 am ET

Visteon Corp. confirmed this morning that it is in discussions with a private equity firm to sell its stake in South Korean joint venture Halla...    More

Image

2014 US machinery shipments up 6 percent

November 25, 2014 5:17 pm ET

Through the first nine months of 2014 U.S. shipments of primary plastics equipment — for injection molding, blow molding and extrusion —...    More

Image

Globalization brings sizable growth, primarily in Asia

November 25, 2014 1:40 pm ET

In 1990, the year after Plastics News published our first issue, there were 33,000 injection molding machines sold worldwide. Fast forward to 2013, an...    More

Market Reports

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Plastics Recycling Trends in North America

This report is a review and analysis of the North American Plastics Recycling Industry, including key trends and statistics based on 2013 performance. We examine market environment factors, regulatory issues, industry challenges, key drivers and emerging trends in post-consumer and post-industrial recycling.

Learn more

Plastics in Mexico - State of the Industry Report

This report analyzes the $20 billion plastics industry in Mexico including sales of machinery & equipment, resins and finished products.

Our analysts provide insight on business trends, foreign investment, top end markets and plastics processing activity. The report also provides important data on exports, production, employment and value of plastics products manufactured.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

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

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

June 2, 2015 - June 3, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - Chicago 2015

September 16, 2015 - September 18, 2015Plastics Caps & Closures - September 2015

October 27, 2015 - October 29, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - New York - 2015

More Events