Thursday, 20 September 2012 08:27

Carbon Fiber Advances Enable Mid-Volume Production Vehicles from MI Factory by 2013

According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a 10% reduction in vehicle mass increases fuel efficiency by 7% on average, so it’s clear what advantages lighter weight and stronger materials can bring to future vehicles.

As the automotive industry absorbs CAFE regulations and consumer desire for fuel efficient cars, the goal of mass reduction has enabled some startling improvements in production time and costs for carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber is emerging as a practical and cost-competitive alternative for mid-volume production cars, previously used only in exclusive low-volume vehicles like the Corvette ZR1 pictured. Plasan Carbon Composites based in VT and owned by Plasan Sasa, an Israeli defense contractor, will be producing carbon panels for a mid-volume production vehicle as early as January 2013 from its locations in Western Michigan. This means that by early 2013, body shops could be tasked with carbon fiber repairs.

“It will be the first time that carbon fiber has been used this extensively on a base production car anywhere in the world,” said Gary Lownsdale, Chief Technology Officer of Plasan Carbon Composites. The key enabler for this up to 50,000-units-per-year vehicle application is Plasan’s patented Pressure Press processing technology.

A secrecy agreement prevents Plasan officials from naming the vehicle or the automaker, but details about the vehicle will emerge soon. January 2013 marks the start of body panel production at Plasan’s new 200,000-sq-ft facility in Walker, MI.

The new press technology developed by Plasan has lower investment costs and reduce the lead time on tooling. The global increase in raw carbon fiber further enables Plasan Carbon Composites to provide lightweight, economical solutions on low- to mid-volume vehicles.

Plasan Carbon Composites is the leading Tier 1 supplier of carbon fiber parts and assemblies in the United States. We specialize in the production of Class A and structural parts for mid-volume production cars.

As a Tier 1 supplier, Plasan can work with all OEM clients to analyze, design and implement mass reduction challenges and take advantage of carbon fiber’s range of superior material properties beyond just weight reduction.

Carbon fiber allows for significant mass reduction while containing costs through part consolidation, lower capital investment, simplified assembly process and other life cycle savings such as reduced warranty costs and leaner supply chain.

Carbon fiber’s production applications have included roofs, hoods, and other Class A surfaces on low-volume sports cars. But the upcoming global production vehicle will have 75% of its body (including the hood, fenders, and roof) comprised of carbon fiber.

Plasan has developed what it calls a ‘Total Systems Approach’ to maximize the cost-competitive potential of carbon fiber. More than just dollars-per-pound, carbon fiber means:
● Part consolidation
● Reduced capital investment
● Shorter lead times
● Reduction in assembly process time
● Life-cycle cost reduction such as reduced warranty costs
● Increased fuel efficiency
● Elimination of secondary pyrotechnic devices for pedestrian protection

By using this Total Systems Cost Approach in the design process, Plasan is bringing carbon fiber to mid-volume production vehicles including hybrids, crossovers, and sedans.

What began in aerospace and moved to the racetrack, is now being used at Plasan and introduced to volume production. Through automotive-specific materials, increased efficiency in carbon fiber processing methods and reduction in direct labor requirements, Plasan is rethinking carbon fiber.

“We’ve been molding parts at our Wixom, MI, R&D center, which has two of the new pressure presses. We’re moving one of those presses to the Walker facility and adding five more pressure presses by 2013,” Lownsdale said, adding the new facility has the capacity to house 12 pressure presses.

The novel pressure press technology shatters the 90 minutes needed by Plasan to mold a body panel with autoclave processing. Materials processing time with the pressure press is a 17-min machine cycle.

“It took us about a year and a half to synthesize fully the process of what happens inside the autoclave. But once we were able to find out exactly what happens physically and chemically inside the autoclave at discreet time increments, that enabled us to plot a whole new thermal dynamic curve and a whole new pressure curve with our patented pressure press technology,” said Lownsdale.

A provisional patent addresses the entire process while eight separate pending patents involve Plasan as well as the equipment provider Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. of Tacoma, WA.

The new process applies up to 150 psi (10.3 bar) of surface pressure at up to 450°F (232°C).

Plasan’s cure cycle can be as low as 7 min, depending on the resin formulation. (Technical specialists at Plasan have achieved a 2-min cure time in the lab by producing an 18-in (457-mm) long, 6-in (152-mm) diameter cylinder made of thermoplastic resin.)

Like Plasan’s other carbon-fiber body panel production applications, the same thermoset epoxy-based resin will be used for several of the new base vehicle’s exterior panels, including the hood, fenders, and roof.

“The density of the carbon fiber components is the same as our current autoclave production parts,” Lownsdale said. “Weight savings for all of the components will be similar to what was achieved on the current Chevrolet Corvette and SRT Viper production programs.”

Carbon-fiber body panels on the future vehicle will be a combination of exposed weave and painted finish.

“There are some new components with unusual shapes that required innovative mold tooling. We developed removable sections of the mold tools to attain detailed design shapes for fine character line definition in order to meet the stringent design studio requirements,” explained Lownsdale, who cannot reveal the specific components.

Plasan’s new production center and its equipment represents a $30 million investment. The company initially will employ 202 workers, including 20 engineers, at the production facility.

Providing body panels for a medium-volume production vehicle is just a first step for Plasan.

“We’re processing carbon fiber with a breakthrough piece of technology. It’s not RTM (resin transfer molding), and it’s not autoclave. It’s something entirely new. Our 10-year plan calls for the development of breakthrough technology every three years. This is just the first of what’s to come,” said Lownsdale.

The parts Plasan is producing and intends to produce include both Body Panels and Structural components:

CLASS A Body Panels
Hood Assemblies
Deck Lid Assemblies
Door Panel & inner parts
Rocker Moldings
Roof Assemblies
Lift gates
Rear Wings/Spoilers

Roof Frame
Pillar & BIW Substructure
Inner body panels (hood, door, etc.)
Engine Cradle
Side Door Impact Bar
Load Floor
Battery Modules
End Gate Assembly
Seat Frames & Bases