High Volume Production for Carbon Fiber Composite Body Structure

Donald Lasell
Contributor: Donald Lasell
Posted: 11/17/2013

The automotive industry has been hesitant to commit to using composite materials in the body structure. Don Lasell is a man with a dream and he is passionate about finding a solution to the high volume manufacture of composite body structures without losing the skills and knowledge learned from steel production.

I’m one of those "little guys" you’re talking about. Henry Ford was a man with the firm focus on his vision, the bulls-eye. Men and women with vision must step forward, throwing off their faèade conservative demeanor and take the risk of exposing their inner passion.

Donald M. Lasell is President of Think Composites, LLC, in the USA. He is a speaker and workshop leader at our 4th International Congress on Automotive Composites.

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Let’s start with some background on yourself and the various projects you've been involved in throughout your career. Tell us about your project called Think Composites, LLC.

Think Composites, LLC is the embodiment of the dream or the vision "High volume, cost effective carbon fiber composite intensive automotive body structures". It's an opportunity for me to publically discuss what I want to do if I ever did get to work on the dream job but let’s start with my background.

I got my B.S. degree in plastics engineering back in the late ’70s. When I graduated I wanted to work in composites and I only wanted to work in composites. So I spent my first five or six years in automotive composites, compression and injection molding. I was working as an engineer on an SMC compression molding press line and then after that I was working in a BMC injection molding operation conducting applied research improving the molded mechanical properties - impact strengths, really, and improving weight reduction, and achieving higher production rates.

This was the muscle car era?

Yes. Actually that was in the late ’70s early ’80s when the first real, big fuel crisis set in. When they had gasoline rationing and when all of the big muscle cars kind of evaporated for a little while. Everybody in the United States was suddenly presented with what was then high fuel costs and a limited supply. The only other time I can remember or had heard of fuel rationing in the United States was during the war.

So it was an appropriate time to be striving for lightweight materials.

Yes, they did everything they could with what they had at that time. At that time all of the composites, or a lot of the composites, were non-structural.

After that I went into the world of military products, working for a sub-contractor developing and producing military components in composites and bonded structures. The next ten to twelve years was some pretty hardcore military aerospace composites where they were using carbon fiber and other reinforcements to take a lot of mass out the structures. There was a very significant amount of aerospace primary structure developed and produced in carbon fiber composites. I got to see the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) Harrier II, AV-8B all carbon fiber composite wing in production! An exciting time for a composites engineer!

Was cost a big issue at that time for them or was it carte blanche?

I don't believe they cared at all about cost. The issue was to reduce mass and increase performance giving our war fighters the biggest and deadliest swords to wield against our enemies. That was in the mid ’80s, early ’90s when low observable technology started to come out in a really big way and, as you may be aware, it was all about getting metals out of the structure and replacing them with something that was either transparent or something that they could doctor up so that it was not perfectly reflective to radar.

Then after that, I went into General Motors body engineering, working on developing the electric car ( EV1 ). I had become an electric car nut. In the ’90s, GM came out with their concept ultra-lite super car. It was a carbon fiber intensive four-seater, with gull-wing doors. That was when Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute was starting to write about the ultra-high fuel economy potential with carbon fiber composites, everything was about mass de-compounding. He was talking about how it was possible, in his opinion, to take what was being used in the military to make really good weapons and transfer that technology into cars. I agreed with him in a strong way. I had lived in both worlds - automotive composites and aerospace composites - and I felt, still do, there really isn't a big difference other than the focus on production value in cost.

Do you see that as the main factor holding composites back?

Yes, that's the debate. Automotive structure is ultra-cost sensitive and it's all based on the proven ability to achieve volume and maintain high quality. I think the big issue here is that most of the automotive structure manufacturers would need to know carbon fiber composites really, really well, the structural grade stuff. Aerospace and the very few that do automotive are heavily involved in motor sport and are dialed into ultra-low volume and ultra-high quality. I'm not overly convinced that it's possible to tell the difference between aerospace composites and motor sport composites.

When the electric car fell into disfavor at General Motors and they didn't want to support it anymore, I moved on to GM advanced engineering and what was then called GM advanced vehicle technology (GM-AVT) and went into a program called the GM fuel economy learning vehicle program ( GM-FELVP) which was targeted at large SUVs and sports cars. They took a long, hard look at an all carbon fiber truck frame, a chassis. We took a look at the seven-passenger Tahoe SUV carbon fiber frame.

We sourced the development work with Burt Rutan in Mojave, California. We took a very long look at it. We had a cost target where for every pound we removed from the structure, the platform would be willing to pay 20 dollars extra. We took out 200 pounds. This was back in 1999/2000. Truck engineering said no, they decided that they didn't want to do it.

That was when Corvette came forward. The chief engineer ( David Hill ) approached me and said, "Do that same thing but take a look at the new 2006 ZO6 chassis." At that time, they hadn't decided if they were going to do aluminum yet and they wanted a guy like me and the team that I created to investigate the feasibility of doing exactly that same chassis in carbon. How do you do it?

That must have been exciting.

It was! We brought in Delphi Chassis; Delphi was the company that developed the hydroforming technology for the Corvette steel frame and I believe was still part of GM at that time. We examined whether or not we thought we could do the carbon fiber frame rails using that same technology or something close to it.

Using the same tools or nearly the same, using the same capital equipment. The exercise was the hydroforming process which was running at 10,000 psi. We recognized we didn't have to go that high in pressure. The hydro form or whole side rail tubular structure was 20/25 feet long.

Then, we did the Corvette hood for 2005; I did the production release on that carbon fiber outer and inner panel. Class A finish with a carbon fiber part wasn't easy, it had never been done, to our knowledge! The outer panel was 1.2 millimeters thick, which was unheard of in composites for automotive and it was less than half of what they were running for SMC components. The hood inner panel was nominally 0.80 millimeters thick, which was less than what they were doing at the same time in aluminum and nearly exactly the same as what they are doing in steel.

We took it through the entire validation process, testing conformance to all of the requirements, including crash – the same that a steel hood would go through and passed everything. You can do things with carbon fiber that you can't do with steel. For example, the top of the hat sections on the inner, which are what give you the stiffness, were thicker and they used highly oriented fiber. The nominal area that was 0.8 was just four plies of uni-directional carbons 0-90-90-0 but the hat sections were optimized for thickness and strength. Because we had to crush and fold that hood when we had an accident, we did some things with built in triggers - frangible joints. I've had a lot of experience with frangible joints. The military uses them all the time and we just did exactly the same thing in the hood so that we knew it was going to be strong enough when it got subjected to the compression load of an impact it would fold up sweetly. This was the first carbon fiber part on a production car in that kind of volume to my knowledge. Then I went on to the development of the Corvette fenders for the 2006 ZO6.

At that time our objective was to prove that we could do 10,000 a year, 45 a day, although I don't think they've ever sold more than 8,100. But 8,100 was still a hell of a lot of high performance, Class A carbon fiber fenders! At that time I had left General Motors and had moved back to the Green Mountains of Vermont and was working as a composites manufacturing engineer at Vermont Composites.

What happened then was that the supplier whom had quoted and won the production Corvette fenders couldn't make the prototypes with acceptable quality for the Beta validation fleet! I got a phone call personally ( at home) from the same chief engineer as before, who said, "Hey Don", this supplier "says that these fenders can't be made as designed and the person (engineer) who designed it didn't know composites." That was quite a gauntlet thrown in my face ( as I design released that fender)! And at that time Vermont Composites had a number of Lean Value Streams, but automotive wasn't one of them and automotive Class A certainly wasn't one of them! They didn't want to have anything to do with automotive composites. General Motors stepped forward and gave them an offer that they couldn't refuse.

A great opportunity.

So we did it. We were able to prove to them that, yes you can make these fenders as designed. We proved to them that the prototype tooling that they had used to try to produce the Beta fleet were not properly designed. The people didn't really know how to design the composites tooling, at least this type of composites tooling. I was able to convince Vermont Composites to make these things. I could not permit the dream to fail, it was an exceptionally stressful time in my life! Having the vision meant having to do all of the hard work, first person singular stuff.

Actually it was quite challenging. If it wasn't for the main owner of the company ( Dan Maneely ) who passed away with cancer a few years ago, it would never have happened. He felt that it was an opportunity that couldn't be passed. He also owned a 100 percent carbon fiber bike. He rode it 100 miles every weekend and knew what the value of an ultra-light structure can achieve and it would never have happened if he hadn't agreed to accept the contract and enabled me to reassemble my team and get those fenders into volume production; getting them up to the required rate and proving that we had a quality consistency that was acceptable to General Motors. We out-performed the requirements of any of the composites that they had used to that point. They really couldn't believe that we were able to achieve what we achieved, dimensions rock solid plus or minus (four) 4-Sigma; not six, but we achieved a rock solid 4-Sigma out of the starting gate with a die set that had to have six copies/tools in it. It's one thing to do one turn of dies, it's another thing to do it when you've got six sets of dies and you've got the variation that’s induced just between the tools. We did it!

That must've been an extremely satisfying moment.

It was, but my passion is high fuel economy cars. My passion is electric cars. I didn't want to do race cars anymore and I didn't want to do some more class A unless I had to. I wanted to get back into structural composites and I got a job opportunity in Florida to get back into aerospace composite structures, and I took it. Since then I've been working on commercial aircraft structures, helicopters mainly, military aircraft structures and now that I'm out at Aurora Flight Science I'm doing the same thing as we have a structure that is nearly 100 percent carbon fiber composite in a very large UAV, an unmanned airplane, an aerial vehicle with a 135 foot wingspan, a 65 foot long fuselage, all carbon fiber structural composites and structural bonding.

I still want to get back into automotive structural composites. It's a dream of mine, the only reason for creating and maintaining the presence of Think Composites, LLC. I want to enable high fuel economy in the automotive industry; I don't really want to do race cars. I understand that a lot of time is involved in order to demonstrate it. You have to do it on a sports car or something that can be sold. But in the long term, for me, it needs to have a fairly clear roadmap to high fuel economy. I want to do high volume; I want to do exactly what Henry Ford did back in the 1900s with his cars. His challenge was to take cost out in order to sell more of them. There is this unbreakable Law of Supply and Demand right up in front of us. The more you can take out of the cost, the more you can sell. Ford did a tremendous job and honestly sometimes I believe the industry has forgotten the value of that vision and passion.

I think a lot of people are rooting for you.

Thank you, I believe Europe is eager to come up with ways to significantly improve fuel economy and still keep the cars sexy. We all know that there are carbon fibers in race cars, carbon fibers in airplanes and carbon fibers in all of the cool, exciting stuff: racing bikes, tennis racquets, etc. The trick is how to make the components affordable to the point where the mass market will feel it’s worth the expense. That's why for the last three years I've been speaking about my vision of taking carbon fiber composites to high volume with the assumption that, as you achieve the high volume, you get the cost out with all of that automation. The problem is that you've got to prove it and it's a lot of expense. Funny, there are way too many companies that I believe are risk adverse. Or worse! Don’t want the change, want to avoid the disruption in the "Status Quo".

It's a conservative industry, for sure.

Especially when you’re in the structure business. When you're talking development and production of primary structure, it's no joke. It has to be strong. It's called primary structure for a reason. Plus, everything interfaces with the structure, fits and finish spawn from the consistency of the structure.

You take a look at all of these motor sport cars going around race tracks going fast at 200 mph and what is their primary structural members? Composites. You take a look at these open Roadsters for Indy and Formula racing and all of these vehicles that are really, really operating at their limit. The drivers are all seated in safety cells that are composites. They all have composite crush-boxes all around them. On the other hand they're ultra-low volume and they're willing to pay the premium to get the performance reward, the checkered flag waving with no one else in front of them.

In terms of the last ten years, what do you see as the main drivers of the industry? Could you break it down into specific events or issues that you've noticed?

There's no doubt about it, ten years ago almost exactly, Boeing announced that they were going to develop and build the carbon fiber intensive Boeing 787 and their first delivery was, what, about three years ago? I had a chance a year or so ago, at a conference in Boston in an October to listen to one of the men who was on the team that advised the chairman about the feasibility of the B787. The decision from the chairman's level, on the CEO's level, was that they had to do it. They said "We're experts now in aluminum. We're the best builders of aerospace structure in aluminum in the world and there's really nowhere else to go but down from here". In their opinion, the way I heard it, "it's only downhill from here if we stay in an aluminum structure. We have to get something better. We have to improve fuel economy". The world is demanding it, it's obvious to everybody that with the price of fuel skyrocketing it was becoming a mandatory requirement for Boeing to take a step to significantly improve fuel economy and, they acknowledged at the highest level that they didn't understand everything about carbon fiber composites. It was a learning opportunity and it was the only way that they could know that they would be at the forefront of technology for another two or three decades. This is and was a big deal.

So from your view aerospace has been a big driver for the automotive industry?

Ten years ago Boeing introduces the 787 and what happens is you get a mad rush from all of the other air-framers to get carbon fiber into their aircraft in a big way. You've got the Airbus A350 that they're working on. I know Bombardier has a carbon fiber aircraft they're developing. I know Embraer has one. They all have more aircraft in the product development pipeline, proving that do they get a significantly better fuel economy. Because you don’t have a fatigue problem, because you don't have a humidity problem they're able to improve the creature comforts of the aircraft. The 787 has the largest passenger windows of any of the aircraft and they're able to run the humidity of the air in the aircraft up to a point that's more comfortable for long flights. They're able to pressurize it a little bit more. So far, knock on wood, everything's good.

They just have to get over a couple of these public relation’s hurdles from the battery, the battery issue.

The battery doesn't have a lot to do with the primary structure of the aircraft. They stretched really hard to take out mass. They've learned a lot and, I hate to say it, but that was what the EV1 electric car was. It was supposed to be a learning vehicle. It was exactly the same concept as the B787, it's just that GM’s management team, in my opinion, changed, lost their nerve and decided to walk away from what was, again in my opinion, the best vehicle that General Motors ever developed and produced. They just lost their nerve.

Auto companies paid the price for their lack of forward-thinking. In terms of hurdles and challenges, what do you see as the most important challenges that composites engineers need to overcome to achieve high volume high volume production for the automotive industry?

My answer to that question is due process has to be developed. We have to prove that we can produce quality product at high rate. General Motors and all other big automotive OEM companies live by it. There's the Bill of Design (BOD). We've got to prove know how to design this thing in order to produce it at rate. Then finally there's the Bill of Materials (BOM). Finally, there is the Bill of Process (BOP). A very detailed plan of how to produce quality product at the required production volume in the bulls-eye of the cost target! When we were trying to get the Corvette hood approved for rate and trying to get the Corvette fenders approved for rate we had to develop, document and get the approval from what's called the Sub-System Leadership Team (SSLT) to permit us to put those products onto the car. It was a real big deal because once it's approved for that particular business case then any operating unit, any platform within General Motors could pick up that BOD, BOM, BOP package and put it on a car. It really justified the business case.

But the big part of your question is more about increasing market share and that is all about cost. The cost of the design development, the cost of the materials, presses and tools, the cost of the manufacturing, the cost of the capital equipment, the cost of re-training the manufacturing personnel, the cost to re-design. It's all re-visiting the lessons learned by Henry Ford back in the early 1900’s and it's all re-visiting exactly what Boeing is doing today. You've got a new material and you've got a slightly different manufacturing process. It's also about know-how. How do you do this? How do you design it? How do you assemble it? How do you recycle it?

Of course, there's a plan for all of that I'm just not overly convinced the industry has the resolve. You mentioned that one of the road blocks is an ultra-conservative manufacturing organization in body structure that is nearly 100 percent steel and with little or no desire to change the game. Boeing manufacturing was nearly exactly the same with aluminum structure. They built aluminum aircraft; they knew how to build aluminum aircraft. They had PhD’s knee-deep with knowledge of aluminum aircraft. They had a small group who knew composites and they had to change. They took the chance. So actually in this case the big guys told them they had to do it.

Do you see a similar change in automotive occurring with the big automotive companies or do you see a change to composites coming from one of the little guys just hitting the right note on the process and selling it to them?

I’m one of those "little guys" you’re talking about. Henry Ford was a man with the firm focus on his vision, the bulls-eye. Men and women with vision must step forward, throwing off their faèade conservative demeanor and take the risk of exposing their inner passion.

I've lived it (new vehicle development) from the inside looking out and I've looked at it from the outside looking in. Sometimes you're entering into a battle and before you go into that battle your eyes better be wide open so you know whether or not there's a chance you can win or whether or not you're just going to lose. The people that are forming steel today know steel. They're learning aluminum, they're learning high-strength steel and they don't know much of anything about composites so they're afraid of it.

In my opinion instead of investing in the future, like Boeing did, or like what General Motors is doing with Corvette, there is a certain denial. In my opinion the big boys who are producing structure today, need to start learning composites. My purpose has been lately to ask, how different are their designs, how different are their manufacturing processes, how different is their tooling and just how feasible is it to make carbon fiber composites using close enough to what they've got so that it's more convenient for them? I don't advocate throwing away everything that they've ever learned and just go to something radically different. Make good with what they have, including their capital equipment and their tooling knowledge, the people ought to be able to produce steel and carbon fiber composites with nearly exactly the same equipment. I think it can be done.

I know this is a relatively long-term vision, but could you give us some insight into the time frame that you believe is possible for this change to occur?

I believe we can bench-mark the aerospace industry for how long it’ll take. The B787 development started 10 years ago. All of the OEM air-framers are now scrambling to get their versions in the air. We’ll know soon enough how long it will take to have everything flying be carbon fiber composite intensive.

The development time revolves around engineering due diligence, you've got to take the vehicles to the proving grounds, you've got to drive in the frozen Tundra of the North and the hot & humid environments on the equator. You've got to crash test it, you've got to four-poster it, you've got to take it to the extremes and, from my perspective that takes a rock solid five years. It's roughly five years from tomorrow before you've got a vehicle that you can introduce to the public that you feel safe about. Take a look at the new Volkswagen, XL1. They have been developing that car for almost a decade and now they’ve produced 50 of them.

The XL1 is a composite-intensive car that is 1000 lbs. lighter than the Prius and is producing rock solid gas mileage. The last I heard they're saying 1 liter for 100 km but it's producing on a regular basis over 100 km in 2 liters, which is still pretty damn good! They're still being ultra-cautious about introducing it to the public. They want to get more hands-on experience to find out what the reliability is, the durability, the maintenance costs etc. You can only do so much of this validation on the proving grounds and then you've got to hand it over. That's exactly what we did on EV1. We had the Preview fleet where we made a hundred of them. Then when we started production, we only produced in lots of 500. GM did two lots of 500 before the company pulled the plug. I drove one for two years. It was a hell of a nice car.

I think I told everybody that in my opinion the initial target production rate for a composite intensive body structure is 1000 a day or 250,000 a year. I believe it will take ten years from today to make a vehicle like we are talking about; a four-passenger or five-passenger sedan, very high fuel economy, safe to drive, fun to drive with the costs down to the point where the public would be willing to buy them at that kind of volume. It's all about supply and demand and ten years from now we can have one car at that kind of production rate on the roads, worldwide.

Why do I think it's going to take another 25 years to dominate the industry? The industry is producing 16 million steel automotive structures a year (that is 64,000 vehicles per day!) and those volumes will continue to increase until the price of fuel becomes prohibitive. Then people, humanity, will be forced to stop buying because they can’t afford the travel costs. Today the world is using 80 million barrels of oil a day. 80 million, 30-gallon barrels of oil a day. It's staggering the amount of oil that we're simply burning. I did a little search, when is demand going to exceed the supply? If we're not at or over the peak, we're damn close to it today. The price of oil today is at an all-time high. At least in the United States it is. People in this country are struggling with four dollar a gallon of oil and I only shudder to think about what you're paying over there in Europe.

It can be 8 to 12 dollars a gallon depending on the country.

Okay. So 15 years after the first composite car is produced at rate and you have a high-fuel economy car that's relatively affordable - affordable enough to sell 250,000 of them a year of a particular body style. In my opinion, there will be a mad scramble to develop and produce around the world, just like today after Boeing with the B787, for everybody to have one. It takes time for an industry that large to admit that a major change is needed.

In a previous conversation I said 25 years and you came back to me with, "that's a long term vision." I'm not overly convinced it's that long term. I think some would say that I'm overly optimistic. Why do I think it could be done that quickly? I believe we can prove that the tandem press lines that are being used today to form steel can be used to make carbon fiber parts. I believe that the tooling that they have today that are making steel parts can be modified to make carbon fiber parts. It's not that big a stretch. It just needs time. I've been trying to convince people for over ten years you can do it in carbon fiber. I joined General Motors in 1995 and it took years to convince them. I know it was almost 5 years before they were able to feel comfortable enough to let me run a development team to work on it.

If you have the opportunity to craft policy to promote innovation without bankrupting the industry, what would you do?

Mandating extremely high fuel economy is a good start! It’s a two-sided sword. Countries, the world really, need to ease way back on their fuel consumption. Fuel oil is not a renewable resource you know. Energy use, especially for countries importing a significant portion creates a significant strategic problem. Without fuel, energy, commerce slows to a stop.

Innovation comes from the minds of individuals and teams of visionaries, putting their heads together in-order to solve difficult problems, in-order to achieve difficult objectives. Think Composites, LLC is the embodiment of the vision, a company with no income and only expenses. Is it policy, when you’re required to listen to the men and women of vision? Is it policy, for the leaders, the policy makers to stop listening and believing the huge, powerful and wealthy lobbies advising that incrementalism is better? The petroleum and steel lobbies are massive, but they are self-serving. Is it policy to require common sense from our leadership?

Everybody wants a car that looks cool. Everybody wants to have a car that people would think is a race car. In my opinion, that's the next big niche. A car that looks like a race car but isn't. A car that can get ultra-high fuel economy, is fun to commute in, fun to take out on the weekend but won't break the bank when you have to refill the gas tank. They say the XL1 has a gas tank that holds two and a half gallons. Even paying 20 dollars a gallon, you can drive up to the gas station, fill it up and only pay 50 dollars. I pulled up to the pump the other day and spent 100 dollars for my truck. I put 25 gallons into it but it still hurt my wallet. Mandate that the companies must spend as much money on environmental policy and fuel economy as they’re spending today in motor sports. Find the innovators and put them to work.

Right now the automotive industry is spending millions and millions of dollars on developing high-strength steel using hot forming, warm forming and new forming technologies, so they can go to the new high-strength steel and future steel vehicle of the world and the ultra-light steel automotive body structures. They're dragging their feet as much as they can to stay in the steel world. It's just a travesty that they would spend huge amounts of money trying to prolong the life of a steel car and miniscule amounts of money on carbon fiber composites.

That's referred to as the sailing ship in economics.

It’s because they've invested so much money in processing equipment and robotics and automation. That's why I believe in utilizing that beautiful equipment by re-tasking it. How much of that can be used again in composites? I believe you could use it all. Improve the incentives for critical high-value technology. Invest in the assembly and manufacturing of composites in component structures and assemblies. My opinion is it's all about high fuel economy; it's all about alternative sources of energy.

People are still focused on what comes out of the ground. These are still non-renewable resources. The big debate is over when the demand is going to exceed the supply and when are we going to start realizing the end. The empty tank in the supposedly bottomless reservoir, what happens when fuel oil can no longer be drawn out of the ground in unlimited supply? Do you want to use all of that oil as fuel and simply burn it or do we want to re-use it and re-use it as a petrochemical? If you have a non-renewable resource like that, re-use it; don't just burn it. I think Europe is going the right way with recycling, recycle everything at the end of life. Why aren't we doing that with oil? Why are we not thinking more about re-using it?

In the short-term, the focus should be on super cars in the fuel economy sense; cars that look really cool in my opinion are the ones on which to focus. The other focus should be the delivery truck or van - vehicles that are driving around cities trying to earn a fair buck but have to deliver products to do it. There is a huge opportunity in my opinion to provide an owner of a small business with an ultra-high fuel economy vehicle, the van or truck that he or she can use to stay afloat. Just to deliver bread, just to deliver goods.

A light commercial vehicle?

Yes, I think the light, ultra-high fuel economy ones are where the next big opportunity is. Focus on producing 100 a day (50,000 per year) and then strive for 1,000 per day (250,000 per year). I believe you could find that many buyers to justify development and manufacturing operations at those production levels.

Where do you take your inspiration from?

I have my nose as deep as I can get it into the automotive steel design manuals, the high strength steel application design guidelines. Asking myself, can I do exactly the same, or close enough? I’m a composites expert. I know I can do what they can't. I can vary the gauge in the same part and I can vary the orientation of the fibers that they can't. You've got to understand how we design a car today. You have to understand how we assemble a car today. I don't think you should throw all of that away to go to a new material. I'm a little worried that's what has been happening. From what I've been hearing the focus is on few pieces monocoque, the focus is on consolidation of components, integration of components, trying to build a vehicle that is in one or two pieces. I'm not convinced that's the right way to do it.

Isn’t that just cost-effective production?

It is if you're not thinking longer term. My dad owned an automotive body repair shop for 40 years. It wasn't uncommon to have a car come in with a crushed side. What he would do is cut away the damaged components and weld, rivet and bond in the new one. If you go into a monocoque structure that is all one piece, you're going to have a car that is going to be hard to repair if not impossible to repair. You're going to have a car that the insurance industry won't insure. You're going to have a car that requires retooling big molds if you want to make a change. Plus, I said earlier that the body structure interfaces with every other component on the car. The automotive body structure shop must be flexible, capable of quickly adapting to variation and capable of making discrete changes responding to variation in the interfacing components. 6-Sigma dimensional repeatability, capability really is important in high volume, but so is the ability to make quick adjustments. The designs, the interfaces used today are there for a good reason.

If you go into a composite solution you've got to think about how you are going to recycle the really good stuff into something that's less good. You're going in with target costs’ but your yield isn’t going to be 100 percent so you're going to have engineer scrap. You need to be able to turn that around and make it into something else and that something else is going to have the same problem. For a total vehicle you've got to make a design that is not just for one particular architecture but is multiple architecture capable like they are today in steel. I took a look at the building material (the BoM) on a current steel car and it had thirty different grades of steel on it. Every single part, or it seemed like every single part, has been optimized for a particular grade of steel. Now why do we want to abandon that to go to a one-piece composite body structure? I just don't agree with it. I’ve taken a look at the way that automotive body structure design has been evolving for the last 100 years and I look through all of these really high quality steel design manuals and steel processing design guidelines, it's really impressive stuff that's available in the public domain. I don't see a reason we should abandon it.

You don't lose all of the knowledge that's been built up.

You don't need to. When I was working at General Motors, advanced vehicle engineering, I had a man walk up to me and say, "Don, I got my PhD in metallurgy and if you're successful in composites I'm going to lose my job." I looked at him and said, "Wow. You're so wrong. All of the knowledge you have and the technology that I'm an advocate for are sympathetic." We're going to use the same design guidelines, the same application guidelines, the same processing guidelines and we’re going to modify them for a different material. It's not radically different. Their tensile yield strength is some 300, 400 megapascal, (35000 psi) and my carbon fibers are five times that. The vehicles have got to be the same strength. People think composites will take jobs away if they're successful - they’re wrong!

I think that's always been the villain in the story.

How much re-training is really required? If you can design a car in steel, does that mean that you're not allowed to or you can't design a car in composites? I don't think so, but there are people that think that way. If you can make a car today in steel, does that mean you can't make a car tomorrow that is in composite?

My focus is cost reduction, business growth, with value, value, value. Focus on cost reduction. Try to keep the supply slightly ahead of the demand. Re-do what Henry Ford did in 1900. He started with a vehicle that was 50 percent steel and 50 percent composites. His composite was wood. When the box arrived with the steel part in it, they disassembled the box and put it into the body. That is smart "Lean" engineering. It was all about trying to figure out a way to take the cost out of manufacturing the product so he could sell more of them at a fair price.

I admire your vision and determination to make composite automotive structures an everyday reality.

Thank you!

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors…
…we borrow it from our children"
a Native American (Indian) proverb.

Donald Lasell
Contributor: Donald Lasell
Posted: 11/17/2013


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