Plasan Carbon Composites' parts are used on dream cars, but the auto supplier is hoping the auto industry will see the benefit of bringing carbon fiber into cars that are within reach for the average buyer.
``When people think about the carbon-fiber look, they like it, but they think it's only for certain cars,'' said Dalton Blackwell, vice president and general manager for Plasan of Bennington, Vt. Blackwell was interviewed April 15 at SAE International's 2008 World Congress in Detroit. ``They look at the aesthetic parts, which are nice, but we want to get people thinking about how we can reduce weight and get onto everyday vehicles.''
Plasan Composites was created in 2006 when carbon-fiber molder Plasan Sasa Ltd. of Plasan Kibbutz, Israel, purchased the automotive unit of Vermont Composites Inc. to create the first carbon-fiber maker focused solely on the auto industry. Plasan Sasa's other business units are focused on the defense industry.
Since the purchase by Plasan, the automotive unit has grown to 183 employees from 65 and Blackwell said the company expects to have 300 people within three years.
The key to that growth lies in expanding the auto industry's use of carbon fiber to structural parts where steel and other metals can be replaced with a lighter-weight alternative. Plasan executives are busy now trying to show automakers and designers new ways to think about the material. Carbon fiber is expensive, but it also has benefits that make it worth considering, he said.
``You've got to give value to the weight savings,'' Blackwell said.
Carbon fiber typically is used on high-end vehicles, like European ``supercars'' that sell for more than $100,000, or specialty cars such as General Motors' Corvette Z06 and ZR1, Chrysler's Dodge Viper and Ford's Shelby GT500. Plasan makes body parts for all of those vehicles, which also highlight the distinctive carbon-fiber weave on some spots to add to their aesthetics.
But imagine what structural carbon fiber could do to lower the weight of something like a sports utility vehicle's frame or other key parts, Blackwell said. Lower weight leads to better gas mileage, which is a key selling point for buyers now.
Replace 60 percent of the steel on a midsize vehicle with carbon fiber, he said, and carmakers can improve fuel consumption by 30 percent.
Plasan also is gearing up to boost its production capacity to a level that the auto industry needs, he said. It now turns out 70 fenders per day. By August it will be able to make 210 auto parts per day - putting it on pace to hit annual production of 50,000 vehicles per year, which will match industry standards for low-volume vehicles now using other composites.