AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — Continental Structural Plastics is closing in on a deal that will take it to China as well as expand in the United States to make carbon fiber auto parts.
Chairman and CEO Frank Macher said the auto supplier has two memorandums of understanding with potential acquisition targets in China now and is evaluating which facility it will purchase to become its manufacturing footprint in Asia.
It expects to announce details during the first quarter of 2014, Macher said during a Dec. 6 briefing at CSP’s new headquarters and technical center in Auburn Hills.
Earlier this year, CSP purchased the assets of a thermoset molding company in Pouance, France, which has since become CSP Europe, establishing not only a manufacturing base in Europe but also acquiring new expertise in carbon fiber molding.
The Pouance plant has a strong history in multiple carbon fiber processing techniques, including resin transfer molding, sheet molded compound and traditional prepreg for both Class A surfaces and structural parts. The Pouance site also makes its own RTM equipment and will make machines for CSP to use globally, said Michael Siwajek, director of research and development.
CSP has a long history in providing major composite parts for the auto industry. It already was a supplier of thermoplastic composites when it purchased the Budd Plastics division of Germany’s Thyssen Krupp Automotive AG in 2006. Budd had its own in-house SMC compounding line in Van Wert, Ohio — where it co-developed an SMC blend that would lead to fewer paint blemishes. Budd also made the first high-volume commercial composite truck beds for Ford Motor Co.’s Sport Trac.
Last month, the company announced it would invest $18.3 million in a new paint facility at another former Budd plant, in Carey, Ohio.
Macher, an industry veteran who was vice president of Ford’s Automotive Components Group and a CEO of auto suppliers Collins & Aikman, Federal Mogul Corp. and ITT Automotive, joined CSP in 2010.
The Van Wert compounding operation will be at the center of CSP’s plans to launch commercial production of carbon fiber, Siwajek said. The company will expand the site there once it is ready to begin full-scale manufacturing.
Timing for when that expansion happens depends on CSP’s customers, Macher said.
CSP is a development partner with Ford, Dow Chemical Co. and Dow’s carbon fiber joint venture, DowAksa Advanced Composites Holdings. The team is working on bringing a faster and less expensive carbon fiber composite option to the market.
The new technical center has a pilot carbon fiber SMC line as part of that project.
CSP has developed a prototype hood for a Lincoln MKS sedan that would replace standard mid-density SMC with a combination of lightweight SMC and a structural carbon fiber composite using a 1-inch chopped carbon fiber.
In addition to seeking fast and reliable molding systems, the company has had to put a lot of work into finding the way to align the carbon fibers within a higher volume production system.
“Carbon fiber doesn’t like polymers. It likes itself,” Macher said. “It’s one of those narcissistic materials.”
The technical center also has developed tools for predictive engineering, three presses to produce test parts and is studying the potential to recycle SMC and other key projects needed to take composites to the next level in an auto industry looking for lightweight solutions.
“We have to go beyond body panels,” Siwajek said. “It has to be put into true structural applications.”
CSP has delivered 40 different parts to Ford for validation as part of the development process and is now waiting for word from customers to determine how soon it can look at commercial launch of its carbon fiber programs. With the expertise from both North America and Europe, it will also be able to make those parts in a variety of methods — from SMC to RTP to prepreg — and with the expected expansion to China next year, produce them globally.