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.
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.”