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The Long Road To A Breakthrough For Carbon Fiber, Trucks And GM
- Mar 10, 2018 -

General Motors Co. drew attention at the start of March when it announced the option for a carbon fiber pickup bed on the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali, a first for the auto industry.

But the application of carbon fiber on the pickup truck was a seven-years-in-the-making project that called on the expertise of engineers at GM and leadership at Japanese materials firm Teijin Ltd., and supported by Continental Structural Plastics.

The Detroit automaker touted in a March 1 news release that the carbon fiber bed — called CarbonPro — marks the first time any automaker has used carbon fiber in a truck bed.

Since 2011, the automaker has worked with Teijin as a supplier of the chopped thermoplastic carbon fiber used on the truck. It has been a work-in-progress relationship for research and development of the material, which has seen "a long path and a long validation" for the application on the Sierra Denali, according to GM's Mark Voss.

"The thermoplastic material allows us to recycle any scrap that's [left] from the process. In fact, we have two parts in the pickup box on the next-gen Sierra that are made from 100 percent recycled material that's generated as scrap through this manufacturing process," he said during a March 7 phone interview.

Voss is the engineering group manager for advanced composites and pickup boxes — a professional title he said he was unable to use until the March 1 reveal of the next-gen Sierra Denali and SLT.

"If you look at the other carbon fiber usages, even globally, they're all traditional thermoset composites," he said. "This is breaking the paradigm not just for pickup boxes on the new Sierra; it's actually breaking some paradigms around carbon fiber material systems themselves."

Through the collaborative process, GM had engineers co-located at the Teijin facility in Auburn Hills, Mich., also home to composites supplier Continental Structural Plastics, which Teijin purchased in 2017.

"This was a very exciting global co-development project that resulted in an industry first for GM," Eric Haiss, executive vice president of CSP, said in a March 7 statement via email.

"Early on, the development of the project involved learning how to process the material, how to design with the material through extensive CAE [computer-aided engineering] work and then putting it through all of the application-specific testing to ensure that it met and exceeded customer expectations," he added.

Other steps in the co-development of the material, Haiss said, included modeling techniques, application and material validation, and manufacturing strategies and process.

"Then, when Teijin acquired CSP in 2017, we had the combined materials and manufacturing expertise needed to bring this carbon fiber box to production readiness," he said.

Teijin-owned CSP will be molding and manufacturing the carbon fiber box at its facility in Huntington, Ind. The material is made in Japan and shipped to the United States, the company said.

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