A seismic shift for automotive composites?

Automaker General Motors and carbon fiber manufacturer Teijin Ltd. announced on Dec. 8 that they will codevelop advanced carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic technologies for potential high-volume use globally in GM cars, trucks and crossovers.

Automaker General Motors (GM, Detroit, Mich.) and carbon fiber manufacturer Teijin Ltd. (Tokyo, Japan) announced on Dec. 8 that they will codevelop advanced carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) technologies for potential high-volume use globally in GM cars, trucks and crossovers. The pact involves the use of carbon fiber composite manufacturing technology developed and held tightly under wraps by Teijin. Said to be able to produce CFRTP at the auto industry’s target part-per-minute rate, the process could enable GM to introduce carbon fiber composite components on mainstream vehicles. For Teijin, the arrangement could broaden its portfolio beyond specialty and high-end automotive carbon-fiber applications. To support the relationship, Teijin will establish the Teijin Composites Application Center early this year at an as-yet unspecified located in the northern U.S.

“Our relationship with Teijin provides the opportunity to revolutionize the way carbon fiber is used in the automotive industry,” said GM vice-chairman Steve Girsky. “This technology holds the potential to be an industry game changer and demonstrates GM’s long-standing commitment to innovation.”

The manufacturing technology, introduced by Teijin in March 2011, includes use of the press forming process in conjunction with intermediate-modulus carbon fiber materials combined with thermoplastic resin. The company said it has developed three materials that can be used selectively, depending on the required strength and cost of the part, and maintains that the materials can be made with a variety of thermoplastic resins, including polypropylene and polyamide. The three available materials, as of March 2011, were unidirectional and isotropic prepregs, and a long-fiber thermoplastic pellet for injection molding of complex parts. The material and fiber types that GM will consider at the Center were not disclosed.

The Teijin Group, which has identified automobiles as a key growth market, accelerated the new technology development through a collaboration between the Teijin Composites Innovation Center (Gotemba City, Japan) and subsidiary Toho Tenax Co. Ltd. (Tokyo, Japan), where the mass-production technology was successfully developed. “Teijin’s innovative CFRTP technology, which promises to realize revolutionarily lighter automotive body structures, will play an important role in GM’s initiative to bring carbon fiber components into mainstream vehicles,” said Norio Kamei, senior managing director of Teijin. “We believe our visionary relationship with GM will lead the way in increased usage of green composites in the automotive industry.”

Teijin announced on Nov. 30 that it will establish a pilot plant on the premises of its Matsuyama factory in Ehime Prefecture, Japan, for fully integrated production of CFRTP automotive components. The plant is expected to achieve cycle time of less than a minute when molding composite products using the previously described material forms. Construction of the new plant will begin soon, with operations expected to start in mid-2012. The capital expenditure for the establishment of the pilot plant will reportedly total more than ¥2 billion ($25.8 million USD). Teijin has already developed an electric vehicle concept car in 2011 that features a body structure made entirely of CFRTP components and weighs only 47 kg/104 lb — or roughly one-fifth the weight of a conventional automobile body structure. The technology, however, is expected to find use a broad range of other applications.

GM representatives told CT during an interview that Teijin will announce the location of the U.S. technical center in early 2012; Teijin also will be the operator of the facility. GM will work with Teijin at the center to develop and assess material-and-process combinations for use in automotive structural applications in a high-volume production vehicle. A timeline for this development process has not been set, GM said, but the company acknowledged that integration of carbon fiber composites in a production vehicle would require “from the ground up” design and engineering to optimize material use and minimize weight.