Japan's Toray Industries Inc. has taken a minority stake in U.S. auto carbon fiber supplier Plasan Carbon Composites Inc. in a move underlining the potential growth for carbon fiber parts.
The 20 percent stake comes as Plasan begins to launch its biggest and highest profile project -- making two body panels for the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
The companies did not disclose financial terms of the deal.
Tokyo-based Toray has been establishing development centers globally to help speed the use of carbon fiber in the auto market.
The investment in Plasan takes Toray's involvement further, and helps to ensure a distribution channel to U.S. automakers and to establish Toray as part of a vertical integration system for the material.
"What it really shows is that this is gaining traction in North America," said Jim Staargaard, president of Wixom, Mich.-based Plasan. "There are a lot of development agreements going on, but we're actually making parts and Toray is interested in that."
Plasan developed its own proprietary molding process that will be used for the Corvette's hood and roof, and opened a new plant in Walker, Mich., to make the parts.
Plasan also uses more traditional molding systems on a variety of other auto parts, including key panels on Chrysler Group's Viper.
The investment "completes Toray's automobile application supply chain starting from carbon fibers to intermediate base materials to molded components in the major markets around the world," the company said in a news release.
"It's important to be a part of launching a new market and building a new market," Staargaard said. "It's cumbersome, it's a long process, it's expensive and given the cost of carbon fiber, vertical integration makes sense because there is no existing customer base."
The closest parallel may be in Europe where BMW AG has a minority ownership stake in SGL Carbon, its key development partner in creating structural components and body panels for its upcoming electric drive i series of cars.
Carbon fiber has been a hot topic in the auto industry for more than a decade thanks to its potential for lighter weight parts. However, the expense of the raw material combined with the slow processing time of traditional autoclave production has hampered efforts to expand it into mainstream production.
Plasan formed in 2006 to both produce parts using standard manufacturing, while also investing in long-term research to come up with a new processing method. Its Pressure Press molding format, which is going into full production this year in Walker, is capable of a 17-minute cycle time, including curing.
While the Corvette, with an estimated production run of about 20,000 vehicles annually, is not a mainstream car it is still the biggest single production run for carbon fiber in North America.
"It takes years to establish what we've established, and right now is a good time to be in it," Staargaard said.
While Toray will have stronger access to North American auto production, Plasan will have stronger connections to new technology development within Toray.
The stake still allows Plasan to work with other suppliers on development, which will give it the ability to pursue breakthroughs from multiple sources, Staargaard said.