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August 23, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Rob Klawonn discusses evolution, future of carbon fiber industry

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Rob Klawonn describes the carbon fiber industry as in its infancy, but he sees exciting times ahead in his new role as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of 4M Carbon Fiber Corporation.

The 12-year veteran and former President of Teijin Carbon America took over the top position at the Knoxville-based company on May 1. As reported in this recent article, Klawonn will lead 4M Carbon Fiber’s pivot from manufacturing ovens that others would use to produce carbon fiber to a company actually manufacturing carbon fiber. To do so, the company will employ a technology co-developed by RMX Technologies LLC and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

In Klawonn’s view, there’s a nascent market that is just waiting for a company that can scale to sufficient production levels to move the needle.

“The typical carbon fiber line today is anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 tons per year,” he says.

Globally, total demand is about 100,000 tons. Yet, even with that relatively low volume, Klawonn says anyone currently needing to source 2,000 to 3,000 tons of industrial grade fiber should not have a problem.

“It is currently a contribution margin business,” he explains. “The recovery from a decade ago has been long and protracted.”

Shortly after becoming President of Toho Tenax America, the market for carbon fiber collapsed. “We went from 40 days of inventory to almost 400 days overnight,” Klawonn. “It took a year to clear out the warehouse. It’s been a tough market and still is.”

What excites him about 4M Carbon Fiber is the revolutionary technology at its disposal that enables the company to  produce carbon fiber up to three times faster than conventional processes, use less energy and ultimately result in lower costs. It is the combination of high volume and low-cost which will be transformational for large customers.

“A few thousand more tons a year is not going to move the needle for GM, Ford, Volkswagen and other car manufacturers,” Klawonn says. “They need to see a single plant producing 10,000 tons or more.”

By 2024, 4M Carbon Fiber expects to be producing more than 20,000 tons annually at its new flagship site, using the plasma technology developed by RMX Technologies and ORNL. It (plasma) permits a faster, more stable oxidation process that results in less time in the oven and higher throughput amounts. All of that means lower costs and higher margins.  In addition, plasma will permit use of a wider range of raw materials, including larger diameter acrylic fiber, opening the door to larger diameter carbon fibers than is typically produced today.

“For automotive to really buy-in, we’ll need 10 plants like this,” Klawonn says. That translates into several billion dollars of capital investment.

For now, the company is focused on securing funds to build and manufacture carbon fiber while relying on another company to provide the all-important precursor or raw material from which the carbon fiber is made. Klawonn explains that “the precursor (acrylic fiber) will be critical to what we do.”

As such, 4M Carbon Fiber will eventually need to have its own precursor plant unless it is successful to find a strong raw material partner capable of growth right alongside 4M.