In a segment in which "cost is king," using the high-cost, high-strength thermoplastic material for a pickup bed has to be a strategic play that works for the product, said Mike Siwajek, vice president of r&d at Continental Structural Plastics, who spoke at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars.
"GM has taken an aggressive stance and said this is something that brings value," Siwajek said. "It brings lightweight. It brings durability. And it's a really, really fantastic project."
Carbon fiber won't be a quick choice for every vehicle or every model. The key issue is its cost, typically selling for anywhere from $6 to $40 a pound. Industry expectations are that the material will need to fall reliably below $5 a pound to gain wider vehicle use.
"From our standpoint, you don't want to go in and say, 'We're just going to put carbon fiber there just for the sake of putting carbon fiber,' " Siwajek said. "Yes, it saves weight. Yes, it's high strength. ... Where does it bring the most value for the customer?"
For GM, incorporating carbon fiber and plastics with the Sierra's steel, aluminum and glass fiber composite content enabled the pickup to lose 62 pounds. It also eliminated the need for paint or a bedliner, which saved 40 more pounds.
Continental Structural Plastics, a unit of Japan's Teijin, molds and manufactures GM's CarbonPro box in Huntington, Ind. The supplier is not affiliated with Germany's Continental.
The CarbonPro box is a milestone for automotive carbon-fiber composite use and could open the door to wider adoption for high-volume manufacturing of structural parts.
Automakers just "want solutions to their challenges," Siwajek said, and they want those solutions that are cost competitive and add value.
"I don't know that anybody wants to pay for weight," he said. "So you try to figure out where it fits best, and it's different from case to case."