Carbon parts manufacturer hits 17-minute CFRP cycle time

Plasan Carbon Composites targets production-scale carbon fiber manufacturing process for automotive applications.

Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) are the lightest, strongest material, and they are ideal for reducing weight without sacrificing part performance or safety in numerous industries. However, three major hurdles have limited its use in automotive applications: high cost, low production speed and lack of predictive engineering tools. Plasan Carbon Composites’ (Bennington, Vt.) president, Jim Staargaard, says his company is working on all three issues and claims to have recently made a major leap in production speed with a new rapid-cure system that takes CFRP out of the autoclave yet delivers Class A structural parts 75 percent faster, with 80 percent less finishing and significant reductions in energy consumption. Engineering manager and R&D director Gary Lownsdale says Plasan has “cracked the code” that allows it to reproduce what happens inside an autoclave in an out-of-autoclave process without changing resin chemistry or reinforcement technology. The company has already filed numerous patents on the methodology and just filed a joint equipment patent with development partners Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. (Tacoma, Wash.), supplier of the unique rapid-cure press system, and Weber Manufacturing Technologies Inc. (Midland, Ontario, Canada), supplier of the thin-shell nickel-vapor-deposition (NVD) tooling that is used in the process.

At a July 28 press conference, Plasan and partners demonstrated a 17-minute cycle time on a six-layer CFRP test plaque from press close to press open. The process carved a whopping 73 minutes off the typical production cycle (layup, vacuum bagging and autoclave cure), with excellent consolidation and good finish and minus the mess associated with bagging consumables. Lownsdale also says Plasan has done work on the downstream portion of its process. Because the surface finish is so good right out of the tool, an entire department of skilled finishers can be reduced to a few robots that trim and polish parts. Additionally, an aerospace-grade polyurethane structural adhesive, Pliogrip 9100 from Ashland Performance Materials (Dublin, Ohio), now bonds two-piece parts (e.g. a hood inner and outer) in just nine minutes instead of the usual 32 — allows the downstream process flow to keep up with the now much-faster molding cycle. Staargaard contends that the new technology will enable Plasan to produce CFRP parts at annual volumes of 35,000 to 50,000, several orders of magnitude faster than anyone else.

The July developments momentarily overshadowed Plasan’s acquisition, exactly one month prior, of pultrusion specialist KaZaK (Woburn, Mass.). KaZaK produces high-performance composite structures via low-cost automated composite manufacturing, with applications in ship structures, building structures, space systems and numerous commercial applications Plasan said the KaZaK facility in Woburn will be retained, as will the KaZaK name.