By: Kerri Jansen

The Automotive division of the Society of Plastics Engineers has named Lawrence Drzal its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Drzal, distinguished professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University’s College of Engineering and director of the college’s Composite Materials and Structures Center, is a composites expert who has specialized in adhesion and surface chemistry of carbon fiber composites and other materials. He heads the vehicle technology area of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) and its new manufacturing scale-up center in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.

First given in 2000, the SPE Automotive Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the technical achievements of individuals whose work — in research, design, and/or engineering — has led to significant integration of polymeric materials on passenger vehicles. Drzal is the first academic winner of the award.

He was honored at the 46th-annual Automotive Innovation Awards Gala Nov. 9 in Livonia, Mich.

Plastics News caught up with Drzal to talk about his experiences and outlook for the automotive composites industry.

Q: How did you get to where you are now?

Drzal: I was a co-op at the University of Detroit, and there was a fellow there that was the chief scientist at what was called Wyandotte Chemical at the time; his name was Kurt Frisch. Dr. Frisch was an employee at the company but he would come over every Thursday night and teach a polymers course, and I just got enthralled about it.

I went to graduate school at Case [Western Reserve University], and then the Vietnam War was on and I had to go in the service. I found out that I could go into ROTC as a graduate student and so I did that. My adviser was a consultant to the people at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — the Air Force had their materials program there — and so I worked there with some of the pioneers in the composites field and really got to enjoy that. The Air Force was basically looking at carbon fibers as the only material that would satisfy their needs for aerospace applications. I stayed on after my 4 years as a civilian — I was there about 10 years — and then I got the urge to go to university and Michigan State had an opening and I was selected for that. The opening was actually to set up a composites center as well as be on the faculty. And so I’ve been there for 30 years.

The understanding of what goes on when you bring surfaces together is really the underlying activity that I’ve been involved with my entire career.

Q: You describe taking a “problem-definition” approach to research. What does that mean?

Drzal: I think it goes back to my upbringing. I grew up in a family where I was the first one to go to college. I was always oriented on trying to fix things, and what I found out [early in my career] is that rather than understanding the fundamentals of doing research for research’s sake, I really liked to work on problem-oriented issues. In other words, if this doesn’t work, what can I do to understand it and then solve it? And so virtually everything I’ve done and continue to do is in that realm. And it lends itself very well to doing things like we’re doing at IACMI of being able to take our understanding and use it to advance composites for vehicles.

Q: What major changes have you seen in composites over the years?

Drzal: The big one happened about a few years ago, where the U.S. government said to automakers, “Look, by 2025, you’re going to have to achieve 55 miles per gallon corporate fuel average.” And the people that are in the automobile area basically said, “We’ve done everything we can with engines, we’re not going to make it, and the only other opportunity is for lightweighting.” So that kind of reactivated the whole composites field.

If you step back a little bit, the problem has been that carbon fiber composites are very high-performance materials. They’re very light, strong, stiff and so forth, but they’re virtually unaffordable for commodity applications. And that’s why the Department of Defense can put them in aircraft, because they make a hundred fighter jets or whatever, they can afford that. So the real question was, well, if composites are the answer to reducing weight, we can’t afford that.

Along about five years ago there was a program started at Oak Ridge [National Laboratory] on reducing the cost of carbon fibers. And that program showed that it was possible. So it was kind of a confluence of events — there’s on one hand the desire to lightweight, and on another the interest in reducing the cost of carbon fibers, and you bring those together under this IACMI program where you’re talking about manufacturing innovation — now there’s an ideal environment in which this can take off.

Q: Where do you see the composites industry going in the next couple of years?

Drzal: The key, the missing key beyond the materials, is the fact that in order to produce carbon fiber composites for vehicles, you’ve got to produce them in two-to-three minutes per part. When I make a wing for an aircraft, I can take a day to make that wing. But now if I have to produce it in 180 seconds, all my understanding has to go into how can I optimize that process, or even more importantly, how do I have to change the process to allow it to get to the stage where it can function how I want in 180 seconds? So that’s kind of the next challenge that everyone’s facing here.

The cost issue has been, I wouldn’t say solved, but there’s enough indications out there that there’s going to be a low-cost carbon fiber available commercially that will expand the availability of carbon fibers and their use in different applications. The remaining challenge is the high-speed aspect of it. One of the things that we’re doing here is setting up in Detroit what we call a high-speed manufacturing facility.

Q: Tell me about the vision behind IACMI.

Drzal: If you talk to the OEMs, they basically say, “We’ll use composite materials, but you need to show us you can make them in 18 seconds or less, and they have the properties we need.” Well, nobody’s got the excess capacity from a machine viewpoint to be able to do that, so as part of this IACMI program we’re putting in equipment all with the capability of achieving this three-minute cycle. It will be like a manufacturing cell where we can go through the whole process. The advantage of that is that an OEM, materials supplier, equipment manufacturer can come in and try out things and take it away and commercialize it, so that’s the whole purpose of this IACMI program.

Q: It sounds like there are a lot of opportunities in composites. What would you say to someone wanting to get into this field?

Drzal: We focus on vehicles, it’s metal-centric; well, polymers are quite a bit different. And so one of the issues that’s come up is the fact that we need a trained workforce to work with polymer composites.

We’ve identified four levels that we’re going to be addressing here, in conjunction with universities and community colleges here in Michigan, that is a technician level, two year program; then engineers that have graduated and are working in the industry but their background is in metals, so there’s a retraining issue; and then of course there’s engineers that are in school now, and we are inserting composites programs into their education; and then there are advanced degree people. The last two are pretty much covered. It’s the first two — the technician level program and the retraining that need to be addressed. And so in the IACMI program the Department of Energy is working with us to set up those as well.

Q: What would you like your legacy to be?

Drzal: I would just like to see something that I’ve worked on transition into everyday use. I mean, that could be the best thing for an engineer, to be able to see something they’ve done make a difference. And the opportunities I have are in the vehicle industry, and so adhesion, carbon fiber composites, processing of those materials, those are all areas in which I’d like to be able to make contributions that are long-lasting.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Drzal: Go Spartans!