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July 01, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Lownsdale helping propel Plasan through R & D innovations

Plasan(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a two-part series on Gary Lownsdale who has been involved in carbon fiber and composites for five decades.) 

Gary Lownsdale appears to have found his life’s calling as Chief Technology Officer at Plasan Carbon Composites.

“I came out of retirement, because Plasan convinced me we could do it,” he told in a recent interview. The “it” was a process to mass produce a diversity of automotive parts from carbon fiber, not just fenders and hoods for high-end vehicles.

Carbon fiber is lighter than steel, stronger than steel but also more expensive. With the federal government’s requirement to increase vehicle mileage, materials like carbon fiber composites become critically important to automotive manufacturers.

Because of its recent technology breakthroughs, Plasan’s business is booming with an even stronger forecast as carbon fiber becomes more widely used in mass market vehicles in the 2016 and beyond model years.

When Lownsdale joined the company in February 2008, he brought four decades working with carbon fiber to the company, including an in-depth knowledge of the serious barriers to incorporating the material in mass market vehicles. These challenges included the high cost of raw materials, slow processing times, and a lack of simulation and design tools.

Undeterred, he launched a plan to elevate the company’s visibility, winning industry innovation awards, and “earning us a place at the table as a quality supplier of carbon fiber for the automotive sector.”

Lownsdale started an R & D operation, with a skunk works, and established a 10-year development plan that called for a breakthrough technology every three years to address carbon fiber’s challenges and stay ahead of the competition.

The first breakthrough came some two years later in what Lownsdale describes as a “Eureka Moment.” It was the last piece of the puzzle that allowed Plasan to develop an out-of-autoclave process that delivers an 80 percent improvement in the surface quality of a composite, a 75 percent reduction in processing time, and a 30 percent reduction in cost.

The process was quickly patented.

Today, Lownsdale works from four offices – Wixom, MI, where R & D is based as well as manufacturing of parts for the Dodge Viper; Walker, MI, which is a manufacturing site for Corvette components; Wixon, MI, the corporate headquarters and site of a future manufacturing facility; and the Halcyon Commercialization Center at the Oak Ridge Science and Technology Park.

“We’re seeing a great deal of new business opportunity,” Lownsdale says, citing a 10-fold manufacturing increase this year alone.

“January 13 of this year marked a milestone,” Lownsdale said. “It was the date that we received the first-ever production contract (for components) for a base Corvette model.  Nowhere in the world has a base model been released with carbon fiber.”

In Lownsdale’s case, there are still more technology breakthroughs to realize.

“We’re now developing new resins with ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and Dow (Chemical) that are higher performing and more suited to fast production,” he explains. The goal is to cut the curing cycle from 17 minutes to just two.

This sort of collaboration is made easier because of Plasan’s involvement as a charter member of the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium, an alliance of about 50 firms – local to global – working together to accelerate the development and deployment of new, lower cost carbon fiber composite materials.

“I’m a technologist,” Lownsdale says. “I’ve been a CEO twice and a COO twice, but I like the Eureka moment” that comes from a technology breakthrough.

As you drive around town, look for vehicles like the 2013 Dodge SRT Viper, Corvette ZR1 and ZO6, and Shelby Mustang 500KR. When you do, you’ll see Class-A body panels,
assemblies and structural components manufactured by Plasan.

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