Triple retiree Lownsdale reflects on carbon composites breakthrough

Gary Lownsdale(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series covering a recent presentation that Gary Lownsdale made during a recent Advanced Composites Cluster meeting in Oak Ridge.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

“We have set a new standard for the industry, and I have retired as of May 1,” Gary Lownsdale told a recent gathering of individuals interested in the future of automotive technology in general and carbon composites in particular.

The Loudon or Tellico Village resident and triple retiree – he has one more than yours truly – served for the past six years as Chief Technology Officer at Plasan Carbon Composites, the U.S. branch of an Israeli-based corporation. We profiled Lownsdale in a two-part series a year ago. For those who missed it, you can read the first article here and the second here.

Even though this industry veteran has left the U.S. subsidiary, he continues to consult with Plasan SASA, the parent, and other clients as President of Trans Tech International, so retirement is a figure of speech. More important, Lownsdale is just as passionate about composites and other technologies as he was a year ago.

“I want to take this to a new level,” he says of the breakthrough manufacturing process that has enabled Plasan to cure a resin in six minutes versus the previous industry standard of three hours. When all processing steps are included, the total time rises to 17 minutes, but that’s an order of magnitude improvement.

It took three years to produce that “Eureka moment,” as Lownsdale describes the discovery, and another seven months to have a prototype machine built that could produce parts in 17 minutes. The result, however, is a seven-year contract that Plasan has with General Motors (GM) for parts for a base model Corvette.

“It’s the first time a carbon fiber composite part has been used on a medium production model anywhere in the world,” Lownsdale proudly said, noting that all previous applications were for specialty models of a specific vehicle.

The veteran of the Detroit 3 – Chrysler, Ford, and GM – spoke at the recent Advanced Composites Cluster meeting hosted by Roane State Community College and the East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC).

Lownsdale recalled the irony of the last time he had presented in the room. It was eight years earlier at the weekly ETEC meeting when he gave a “gloom and doom” view of the automotive industry.

“Within a year, you saw what happened,” he said, citing the bankruptcy of two original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – Chrysler and GM – and many of their suppliers.

Much has changed in the intervening years, and Lownsdale maintains his keen focus on the automotive industry and technology development.

During his recent presentation, he described the sector as a “very good growth industry,” citing the significant rebound in automobile purchases from the economic downturn.

“Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers are being stretched as the OEMs expand capacity,” Lownsdale said. Even though the supply chain has not yet felt the economic recovery that the OEMs have, these companies nevertheless are expected to deliver technology breakthroughs in three areas – lightweighting, better fuel efficiency, and safety.

Regarding the first two areas, Lownsdale explained that “every vehicle in the world must have about 700 pounds (of weight) taken out of it by 2025” to meet U.S. fuel efficiency standards. Reaching that goal is a daunting task, and we’ll have Lownsdale’s thoughts about the role that composites will play in the second article in this series.

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