As major suppliers place big bets on carbon fiber, perhaps it's time to pay attention to this emerging technology.
In March, Magna International Inc. announced that it has a contract to produce carbon fiber body panels for an unnamed customer in the 2016 model year.
Magna will get its raw carbon fiber from a wholly owned subsidiary of Toray Industries of Tokyo.
So let's recap: Magna International -- North America's largest automotive supplier -- has forged an alliance with a unit of the world's top producer of carbon fiber, Toray Industries.
Is it finally time to take carbon fiber seriously? Tom Pilette thinks so.
As Magna's vice president of product development, Pilette has been brainstorming new production techniques to take cost out of carbon fiber.
At $10 to $15 per pound, it is pricey stuff compared with aluminum, which costs about $1 per pound -- or conventional steel, which costs about 50 cents per pound.
One of the biggest headaches with carbon fiber is the large amount of time required to produce a component.
Traditionally, manufacturers would impregnate sheets of carbon fiber with resin, drape them over a mold and then bake them inside an autoclave. This labor-intensive process could take hours to produce some components.
Magna's solution? Get rid of the autoclave. The company is using a modified compression mold -- the same type of device used to produce fiberglass components -- with extra controls to get precisely the right heat and compression.
The compression mold generates higher pressures and temperatures than the autoclave, speeding up the curing process. Magna can produce components in five to 10 minutes, and Pilette is aiming for cycle times of two to three minutes.
"We aren't saying we'll get there," Pilette cautions. "That's a goal."
If Magna hits that target, it could produce as many as 100,000 components annually from a single set of tools, up from perhaps 50,000 units now. And that, in turn, could allow automakers to use carbon fiber components in mass-market vehicles.
Magna also is using carbon fiber sheeting made from bundles of smaller, finer thread -- which is less costly than traditional thread.
Most carbon fiber body panels are made from bundles of 12,000 to 24,000 strands. Instead, Magna uses bundles made from 50,000 strands.
Previously, it was considered too difficult to work with such fine strands. If they didn't align properly, the body panel's surface would be too bumpy for a good paint job. Magna has figured out how to align those fibers, Pilette said.
The conventional wisdom is that carbon fiber will have to decline to $5 a pound to make it cheap enough for the mass market. It's not clear when -- or if -- that target will be achieved. But carbon fiber already has emerged from its supercar niche.
The 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, for example, sports a carbon fiber hood and roof produced by Plasan Carbon Composites Inc. of suburban Detroit.
A carbon fiber body panel can be as much as 60 percent lighter than steel -- a major plus for sporty "performance" vehicles, since a lightweight roof and hood lowers the vehicle's center of gravity.
If carbon fiber gets cheap enough for mass-market vehicles, Magna and Plasan are likely to benefit. But the big winner could be Toray Industries, supplier of the raw material.
Toray's big market has been the aerospace industry, but now the company is quietly building its presence in the auto industry. In July, Toray bought a 20 percent stake in Plasan.
In September, the company spent $584 million to buy Zoltek Companies Inc. of St. Louis, which supplies carbon fiber sheet to Magna.
And in February, Toray announced plans to build a $1 billion carbon fiber plant in Spartanburg, S.C. In its press release, Toray noted rising demand for carbon fiber from North America's aerospace industry.
One wonders whether automakers someday might soak up some of the Spartanburg plant's production capacity.