When I joined Composites Technology in 2006, one of the questions I heard most often was this: When will the composites industry develop a manufacturing process that can produce structural carbon- and glass-fiber composites (including body panels) at the auto industry’s target part-per-minute production rate? Composites, of course, have worked in transportation applications for many years, but mostly in nonstructural parts that can be made, for example, via injection molding, or in very low-volume applications, such as autoclave-cured supercar components. Although the high strength-to-weight ratio of composites is ideal for structural applications, the lengthy cycle times associated with the curing of thermoset resin systems had kept production vehicle applications out of reach. So the answer to this question varied widely, depending on whom you asked: Five years. 10 years. Never. Further, it seemed that year after year, this wide window seemed to move with us: High-volume composites were perpetually 5 to 10 years away.
In September 2007, I moderated a panel at the SPE Automotive Composites Conference & Exposition in Troy, Mich. Panelists were asked, among other things, about what it would take to bring composites into structural applications. In my editorial reporting on this panel (click on "From the Editor" under Editor's Picks," at top right), I concluded:
“It was suggested by the panel that true integration of composites into automotive design requires not the part-by-part nibbling of the last 20 years, but a wholesale rethinking of car design, starting from the ground up. The question is, who will do that heavy lifting? Automotive OEMs, like it or not, don’t seem sufficiently motivated, which led at least one panelist to suggest that it’s up to the composites industry — form a consortium that will rethink and remake the automobile with composites as a primary material.”
Well, I was partially right. The last year has seen a series of announcements from all corners of the composites industry — carbon fiber suppliers, automakers and Tier 1 automotive suppliers working on or perfecting high-volume processes. The first was the SGL/BMW joint venture, which promises to use carbon fiber in the passenger cell of the all-electric BMW i3. Then, we got word that automotive parts manufacturer Plasan Carbon Composites is fine-tuning a highly automated process that aims to get thermoset composites molding down into the 10-minute range. Toray and Daimler, meanwhile, also announced a joint effort to develop high-volume carbon fiber composites and accompanying production processes.
Then, as CT went to press, there came the news that Teijin (parent of carbon fiber maker Toho Tenax) had developed a 60-second compression molding process, using thermoplastics and carbon fiber, and had produced a structural passenger cell for a vehicle it is prototyping (see "Teijin announces ...." under "Editor's Picks"). Although there are many unanswered questions about this process, the announcement is promising and intriguing. And it might mean that the 5- to 10-year window is, thankfully, about to close. Might we look back on 2011 as the year composites finally broke the automotive production barrier? We will, of course, keep tabs on this and related technologies and keep you posted as they evolve.