Traverse City, Mich. — Continental Structural Plastics Inc., a composites supplier owned by Japanese materials firm Teijin Ltd., wants to expand its portfolio beyond sheet molding compound.
CSP is looking at new materials and processes that can be married with its current capacity and capabilities on a global scale, said Mike Siwajek, vice president of research and development at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Plastics News caught up with Siwajek Aug. 7 at the 2019 CAR Management Briefing Seminars to discuss the automotive industry's influence on the big-picture business strategy.
Q: CSP has played a big role in materials innovation for automakers, most notably the carbon fiber truck bed as an option on the GMC Sierra. Should we expect to see more of this in the future?
Siwajek: I believe so. I think our new push is "driven by science," and it's really kind of the philosophy we've always taken. We've always been a "materials first" company, where we develop and then sell what we develop as opposed to just trying to provide something everybody else provides. We try to provide some unique value.
But a lot of the things going on right now are developing for future programs and future materials, where we're doing things a little outside of our comfort zone. We've always been an SMC company. We've always done some DLFT (direct long-fiber thermoplastic). Now we have the CarbonPro box, where we're actually getting into more traditional thermoplastic. We want to look to expand that because our charter is to be $2 billion by 2030. We're not going to get there with just SMC, so we've got to look at all different types of materials and solutions for our customers.
Q: And carbon fiber, specifically, do you see that use in automotive applications increasing or, because of cost, it's going to stay relatively flat?
Siwajek: Carbon fiber is a high-value material, so you can't just put carbon fiber somewhere to make it strong, make it light, because people aren't always going to pay for that. But if you can put it somewhere where you're going to get an extreme value out of it, where you're willing to pay a little more for the cost because it's consolidating materials or doing things that current materials cannot do, then I think that's where you really see an expansion.
Now, the CarbonPro box is a little bit of a departure. I think that's a brave chance GM is taking on this. It's a spectacular part and material, and we'll see how it takes off. And if it does, I think you'll see more of that type of thing. But we're also looking at, where else can we do carbon fiber?
As an SMC company — and even the CarbonPro box is discontinuous fibers — you're cutting it up, which is reducing some of the inherent properties of carbon fiber. It still brings more than glass does, but can we look at doing continuous fibers, things that we don't currently do? And those are some of the explorations we're doing in the R&D side to see if we can use those kind of materials.
Q: The CarbonPro box is a pretty good example of different materials coming together. There's metal, aluminum, glass fiber composite and carbon fiber. But overall, in automotive, are steel and aluminum still kings?
Siwajek: They have the most content. I saw a study the other day. It was like, composites or plastics are 2-4 percent of the entire vehicle structure. Yeah, we're not going to replace steel and aluminum overnight, and I don't think our goal is to do that. All of the solutions now are multimaterial, and it's what makes sense for the customer.
At certain volumes, our costs scenario is better than a steel or aluminum stamp for body panels. At a certain point, there's a tipping point. What is that tipping point? Those are the kind of programs we have to target for body panels. Now for structural or underbody or cargo boxes, that might be a different tipping point, and there might be a different value proposition for those materials in those programs.
It's a multimaterial world, and we have to understand how we can join our materials with aluminum, with steel, with magnesium, other plastics. And we have to be able to provide that solution to the customer because they're going to tell us what they want, and we just have to solve the problem.
Q: Carbon fiber, specifically, tends to generate a lot of hype. It's one of the materials, at least by name, that automakers don't shy away from talking about. But in terms of plastics — both the word and the variety of materials — does it have an image problem?
Siwajek: I don't think it has an image problem. Carbon fiber inherently has the costs associated with it in people's heads. If people say they're using carbon fiber, it brings an image of high-quality, luxury vehicles. It's historical. That's where you always saw it. When you start seeing it creep down into more traditional passenger vehicles, I think that the customer perception is pretty high of carbon fiber — whether it be in plastic, thermoplastic or thermoset — whatever it might be.
Q: CSP molds battery covers, too. Does the company see this as a growing area of importance as the industry gives more attention to electric vehicles?
Siwajek: Yeah, that's a growing market. There's already a pretty significant market in China, and we're part of that market. We mold a lot of battery covers in China. It's part of our growth strategy in Europe as well because electrification is very important in Europe and Asia first right now. The U.S. is a little bit standing back right now. They offer electric vehicles, but it's not a strategy, so to speak, in our economy. But in Europe and Asia, it's the way everybody's going, so there are a lot more programs there. We're getting our feet wet over there and learning the standards change daily because as they create these things, they realize, oh no, now we need this or we need this. That's really the challenge for my team is to continually update the material and meet new standards.
But in the U.S., we've done battery covers here for a while. We did the Chevrolet Spark and the Volt for GM and those were just traditional SMCs, so they didn't have a high flame-retardant requirement at the time and those kind of challenges. But the more that we get into this market in the U.S., you're starting to see those requests come through from the U.S. automakers. I think what we'll do is just translate what we've already learned in China and Europe and bring it to the U.S., and that's really what we're doing.
Q: With your setup in Asia, the company has a good foundation to implement that strategy right in the U.S. as the EV market grows. What is the big-picture strategy for the region?
Siwajek: In the U.S., we've always had really close relationships with all our customers here. We work directly with their engineering teams, with their materials teams, so we generally will know ahead of time what's coming or what they're going to need. The trend has been — for r&d, at least for me — to see that the OEMs have done a lot more joint development than we had in the past. Historically, we would come up with something, throw it over the wall and say, "Hey, what do you think of this?" Now they're saying, "Okay, here's our problem: We know you have this capability. We have this idea. Can we work together to develop it?" And that may be us directly with an OEM. It may be us and a material supplier and an OEM, or even multiple companies. That's kind of a fun way to go about things.
Some of these projects are government-funded — DOE (Department of Energy), IACMI (Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation) — they do some funding, where there will be development programs with production intent, but no production promise. But if you prove along the way that this is a really viable technology, and it makes sense for everybody, it will develop into a production program. We've had a couple of those happen already, and we're working on a few more. It's really an exciting way to develop because you don't feel like you're just developing and then hoping someone buys it.
That's how the CarbonPro box came about. Teijin had a long-term development program with GM where they had a secret facility in Auburn Hills that they were working at for a couple of years just to develop the material and develop the process. Once CSP got involved through Teijin's acquisition of us [in 2017], it just went the next step to where we became the Tier 1 for it and now it's in production, so that was a perfect example of that kind of development process.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Siwajek: We're looking every day at expansion in Europe to be closer to the customer and provide support there. We've always had some business with the European OEMs, but we're really trying to expand that and build relationships there. And then Asia is just, it's a huge market. But then all of those locations can support other peripheral locations, so that's where we're at right now. With Teijin, I think they're taking a great interest in what we do. They're trying to build capability within their own organization in Japan where they can mimic some of the things we can do in the U.S. or in Europe, so they can support out of Japan as well. I think that's just going to help grow our business within our parent company.