The current production Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 (shown) features carbon-fiber fenders, roof, roof bow, hood, air splitter, and rocker panels supplied by Plasan.
While not every body panel on an upcoming vehicle will be carbon fiber, its usage marks a milestone.
“It will be the first time that carbon fiber has been used this extensively on a base production car anywhere in the world,” Gary Lownsdale, Chief Technology Officer of Plasan Carbon Composites, told AEI.
A secrecy agreement prevents Plasan officials from naming the vehicle or the automaker, but details about the vehicle will not stay under wraps indefinitely. January 2013 marks the start of body panel production at Plasan’s new 200,000-ft2 (18,600-m2) facility in Walker, MI.
“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.