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Plasan to launch new carbon-fiber process

By: Bill Bregar

December 21, 2012

LIVONIA, MICH. (Dec. 21, 10:50 a.m. ET) — At the Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles conference, Plasan Carbon Composites Inc.’s chief technology officer, Gary Lownsdale, gave more details about a new rapid-curing molding process that he says is much faster than traditional autoclave technology for making auto parts.

Now Plasan is in the pre-production stage at an expanded factory in Walker, Mich., near Grand Rapids. In 2013, the company will begin making parts on seven presses from Globe Machine Co.

After investing $6 million over several years of research and development, Plasan engineers had their “eureka moment” in 2010, Lownsdale said. They had studied the manufacturing process and synthesized the variables of autoclaving into a computer.

Lownsdale said current autoclave molding techniques have a 90-minute cycle. That’s fine for low-volume vehicles or aerospace parts, but the process needs to be faster to get carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics into more mainstream cars. The new process takes just 17 minutes.

The Plasan team had to find, or build, new machinery to use the new process. They ended up working with Globe Machine, a 97-year-old company in Tacoma, Wash., that makes compression molding machines and handling equipment for the plywood, particle board, wooden I-beams and paper-handling industries.

“When they first looked at our graphs and charts, they understood exactly what we wanted to get done,” Lownsdale said. “Within 10 months, we had an operating piece of equipment.”

Plasan and Globe Machine entered into a long-term development project. Plasan calls the compression process a “pressure press.” Globe’s brand name is Rapid Cure.

“Our system is a replacement for an autoclave,” said Ron Jacobsen, Globe’s projects manager, who attended the conference, held Nov. 6-7 in Livonia.

Lownsdale declined to say what parts Plasan will make with the Pressure Press, or identify the carmaker. Plasan already makes carbon-fiber-reinforced hoods, roofs and trunk lids for Chrysler’s Dodge Viper. At the Society of Plastics Engineers Innovation Awards, Chrysler Group LLC won the Body Exterior Award for the hood of the 2013 SRT Viper, molded by Plasan.

SPE’s Automotive Division honored Lownsdale with an Innovation Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony, held Nov. 7, after Plastics in Lightweight Vehicles, which was organized by Plastics News.

The Viper is a high-end sports car. Now Lownsdale, an automotive composites veteran since the 1960s, said faster cycle times will help carbon fiber break through to a more base-level car in 2014.

Lownsdale said one bottleneck is layup of the fiber-reinforced parts. Plasan is working on robotic layup, which he said can happen within the next few years.