Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) are, pound for pound, the lightest, strongest material of construction, and are ideal for reducing weight without sacrificing performance or safety on parts for numerous industries. However, three major hurdles have kept its use limited in automotive: cost, production speed, and lack of predictive engineering tools.
Plasan Carbon Composites’ (Bennington, Vt.) president, Jim Staargaard, says his company is working on all three and claims it has just made a major dent in production speed with a new rapid-cure system that takes CFRP out of the autoclave and 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 the company to mimic what happens inside an autoclave outside it, without changing resin chemistry or reinforcement technology. The company has already filed numerous patents on methodology and just filed a joint equipment patent with development partners, Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. (Tacoma, Wa.), supplier of the unique rapid-cure press system, and Weber Manufacturing Technologies Inc. (Midland, Ontario, Canada), supplier of thin-shell nickel-vapor-deposition tooling.
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, shaving 73 minutes off the typical layup, vacuum bag and autoclave cycle time with excellent consolidation and good finish and without all the mess of consumables.
Lownsdale also says Plasan has done work on the downstream portion of its part production process. Since 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, a special aerospace-grade (9100) of Ashland urethane structural adhesive, which bonds two-piece parts like a hood inner and outer in just 9 minutes instead of the usual 32, means that downstream process flow can keep up with the now much-faster molding cycle. Staargaard says the new technology will allow Plasan to produce CFRP parts at 35,000- to 50,000-unit annual build volumes — several orders of magnitude faster than than the currently known fastest times.