Basalt’s Fiberforge at center of revolution
November 13, 2004
Wheel wells for spare tires and an automotive part called a strut tower brace hardly sound like the tools of revolution. And Basalt hardly seems like the place to incubate a revolution.But that’s exactly what’s happening.A startup engineering firm called Fiberforge is attracting international attention for its revolutionary role in advancing the use of carbon fiber composites in mass production.The firm, headed by former Basalt Town Councilman Jon Fox-Rubin, has patented a manufacturing process that its executives believe will eventually overhaul the ways cars are built.Fiberforge and its mission emerged from the efforts of HyperCar, a company that was spun out of Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute in 1999. HyperCar concentrated on developing a lightweight, ultra-high fuel efficient vehicle for the future.
While in the process of working on that vehicle, HyperCar narrowed its focus to try to figure out how to create super-light car components in a cost-effective way without compromising safety. The change in mission prompted the change in name.The firm isn’t tweaking composite materials for use in a way that hasn’t been tried before, explained David Dwight, Fiberforge vice president of marketing and corporate development. It’s trying to perfect a process that could be adopted by the mass-production automotive world.Composite materials are already used in a variety of products – from tennis rackets to some components of luxury cars. The next generation of passenger aircraft will also use composite material.But in each of those cases, high-tech composite parts are manufactured in a low-tech, time-intensive way – by hand.Dwight and Fox-Rubin get excited while describing how Fiberforge’s process is different. They relish getting into mind-numbingly complex details. In simplified terms, Fiberforge’s process eliminates the amount of material that ends up as scrap after a product is created, and it has figured out an automated, rather than hand, production process.
“There hasn’t been a lot of concentration in the industry on making the process high-tech,” said Dwight.Fiberforge is perfecting its process in a pilot production facility in Glenwood Springs, where secrets are closely guarded. A newspaper photographer is a persona nongrata. The company’s executive office is located in Basalt.When asked how many people the firm employs, Fox-Rubin smiled slyly and would only say “less than 20.”The private-equity company has about 30 shareholders, including the Hewlett Foundation and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy.While Fiberforge is concentrating on making the use of composite materials cost effective for the automotive industry, its work could benefit any company that makes a product that uses composites, Dwight noted. That could be anything from bicycle helmets and backpack frames to airline seats. The company’s first product is a strut tower brace. The wheel wells for spare tires are expected in the not-too-distant future.
Although the application of its process may be diverse, Fiberforge is paying particular attention to producing car parts in a cost-effective way. If successful, it could mean big changes for vehicles. Carbon-fiber components are lighter but also safer than steel. If much of the structure and frame of vehicles were made from composites, fuel efficiency would skyrocket.Fox-Rubin said the cost of cars built from composite materials will be higher than cars built from steel. But the key is making them light enough, while maintaining safety, to offset that added cost with savings on fuel.”The real question is, how long is it going to take us to get there?” Fox-Rubin said.Fiberforge still needs to refine its process to reduce manufacturing costs before it will attract the automotive industry, Dwight said. But the executives and investors are confident they will get there.”We believe we know what needs to be done. We haven’t done it yet,” Dwight said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org