Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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Big Jump in Carbon Fiber for Automotive Use

When fabricators and manufacturers purchase things like carbon fiber sheets and prepregs from Utah-based Rock West Composites, they do so with the intention of using them to create finished products using a manual layup process. This process is time-consuming and expensive, which is one of the reasons auto makers have been slow to adopt composite materials. So imagine the industry’s excitement to learn that GM has made a big jump in carbon fiber adoption for 2019.

When GM unveiled the 2019 Sierra pickup truck on March 1, they let it be known that the truck will come with an optional carbon fiber bed they have named the “CarbonPro Box.” The entire box is not made of carbon fiber; it is just the bed and a couple of structural elements. Their accomplishment is no less impressive though.

The complete box will be a combination of carbon fiber, aluminum, steel, a glass fiber composite, and plastic. All the materials have been designed to be completely recyclable. That, in itself, is an important achievement.

Reducing Weight with Carbon Fiber

Weight reduction is arguably the most important aspect to GM’s design. According to Composites Manufacturing Magazine, they were able to reduce the total weight of the truck’s box by some 40%. Just the carbon fiber bed alone saves 62 pounds of total weight. That much weight makes a real difference in a big truck with a big engine.

Conventional wisdom says GM’s decision to go with the composite bed is part of a broader plan to meet new fuel efficiency requirements that are now just a few years down the road. One would expect that any success they have with the design will lead to other ways of incorporating carbon fiber into their vehicles.

For the Sierra truck beds, GM is working with an OEM provider that has come up with a way to build them using chopped carbon fibers and a thermoplastic resin that can be molded using a standard compression molding machine. Though the details of this process are not fully known, the OEM must be able to mass produce the beds at a comparable cost if GM is willing to include them as an option on the 2019 Sierra.

Recycling the Waste

Equally important to the equation is the fact that GM can recycle the carbon fiber materials used in production of the beds. Recycling reduces waste and, as a result, overall production costs. GM can use the recycled material in other parts not requiring the same kind of structural integrity. Interior console parts are perhaps one example.

Of course, a truck bed made from carbon fiber is very resistant to both impact and weather. It will not corrode either. That instantly makes the bed superior to an aluminum or steel counterpart. The 2019 Sierra may very well have the strongest, most durable bed of any pickup in its class.

You can bet GM’s competitors will be paying close attention to what the company does with composites in the future. We know that Ford adopted a fully composite wheel for one of its high-end Mustangs last year, and other car makers have dabbled in composites for small, molded parts that can be easily mass-produced. GM’s carbon fiber truck bed raises the bar.

By this time next year, we may be talking about mass-produced carbon fiber door panels and hoods. If GM and its OEM partner can produce carbon fiber truck beds cost-effectively, they have to have other ideas in the works. It will be interesting to see what those ideas are.

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