“We were trying to fill a gap when we created the vision,” says Ray Boeman, director for IACMI Vehicles Scale-Up Facility and a professor at MSU. “Companies could do basic research at universities or national laboratories with non-production scale equipment. But if you’re a material provider, you’re developing material you want to sell to an OEM, and you want to take them a full-scale part.” Having a facility where companies can innovate before investing in expensive capital for development allows for greater freedom in innovation and helps OEMs make more informed commercialization decisions.

The facility offers a range of manufacturing technologies, which companies find bridge the gap between research and commercialization. The ability of the compression press to achieve high-volume production levels and ensure strong thermal stability for parts is proving particularly critical for automotive applications.

“People flip between compression and injection molding as the two workhorses,” notes Patrick Blanchard, technical leader for lightweight materials at Ford Motor Co. Ford was one of the early partners behind SURF’s launch. The company began collaborating in 2012 with material supplier DowAska, a 50/50 joint venture between The Dow Chemical Company and Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii A.S. The goal was to develop viable, high-volume manufacturing techniques using DowAska’s automotive-grade carbon fiber engineered molding compound (EMC) to drive more cost-effective lightweight solutions for replacing steel in structural vehicle parts. In 2015, project managers began making plans to move to SURF, which would offer the technology capabilities to accelerate that joint research when it officially opened the following year.

The project addressed improvements at each step of the compression molding process to ensure the EMC material would be compatible with conventional high-volume sheet molding compound (SMC) manufacturing methods –  notably, compression molding. Among other areas, the team examined chemistry reaction speed, resin impregnation into fiber, sheet fiber orientation and strategies for translating the sheet fiber orientation into the molded part fiber orientation. With SURF’s help, the Ford team developed a vehicle liftgate as a demonstration project and performed the full-scale validation testing required to introduce the EMC material onto a Ford vehicle.

Together, Ford, Dow, DowAska and SURF determined the EMC material offered a threefold increase in elastic modulus compared to typical glass-based SMC materials. That resulting increase in stiffness meant the materials would be able to maintain section properties within the constraints of the existing part engineering standards. The result, the team found, was an ability to balance the design freedom available with compression molding, while gaining the high-volume application of a premium reinforcement fiber.