Where dreams are made of carbon fiber

By Xiumei Dong and Iacopo Luzi

Composite Envisions LLC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin, produces carbon fiber composite materials for customers around the world. As the company moves to a bigger factory, 29-year-old founder Cory Thorson, who became rich as a teen-age entrepreneur, said he is excited about the emerging opportunities.

“More space, more employees, more help. The quality is growing up. Everything is more uniform,” said Thorson.

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A U.S. manufacturing success story: Cory Thorson and his company Composite Envisions LLC. (Xiumei Dong and Iacopo Luzi/MEDILL)

At the old facility, Thorson used to make about three carbon-fiber panels a day. Now, with new machines, he expects to increase that to about 300 panels daily–$10 million to $15 million worth of panels annually.

Even without the new facility, and despite the high cost of his product, Thorson said the company was able to generate about $545,000 of revenue last quarter and nearly $2 million in the full year 2015.

So, what is carbon fiber? And why is it so expensive?

Exactly what is sounds like, carbon fiber is fiber made of carbon atoms.

“Carbon fiber is actually a yarn of material and then it’s woven into different forms and shapes for people to process it into different materials,” said Thorson.

When the thin filaments are bound together with a plastic polymer resin by heat, pressure or in a vacuum, a composite material is formed that is both strong and lightweight. The composite has the potential to replace steel and is popularly used in specialized, high-performance products like aircraft, race cars and sporting equipment.

“If you want to try to use carbon fiber in the way the traditional materials have been used, then yes, they are expensive,” said David Corr, research assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Northwestern University. “So, an example would be replacing the steel rebar in reinforced concrete.”

If carbon fiber costs can be driven down to $5/lb, a carbon-fiber-based auto would become cost-competitive with a steel-based auto. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

According to an analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, manufacturing fixed costs can be reduced 80 percent from a steel-automotive baseline by substituting composite manufacturing methods. However, carbon fiber costs would need to drop dramatically to $5 per pound from the current $10 to $15 per pound for automotive applications.

“There are many reasons why it is expensive,” said Thorson. “The raw material itself is very expensive, and to process the materials is very expensive as they are very labor-intensive to take them from raw form into a finished product.” He said the price varies based on the materials, in which the fabric can cost from $15 to $125 per linear yard, and the price for the standard materials is about $20 to $25 per yard.

Carbon fiber costs are primarily driven by its manufacture. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

“It is expensive, so there are customers that just want purely the look of it, they’ll put it on anything they possibly can,” Thorson went on. “But the main use of the material is for its excellent strength characteristics while being very light-weight.”

The next generation of carbon-fiber composites could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent without compromising performance or safety, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“You can really tell the difference at over 60 miles per hour,” said Eric Kukuczka, who spent a couple of thousand dollars to upgrade his MBW M3 at Composite Envisions. Kukuczka said that, although the kit was quite costly, in long terms it was worth the cost.

Thorson started selling carbon fiber materials on the Internet back in 2003.

“I see people saying, I see you have the black material, do you have the hybrid with the red in it, do you have the blue?” said Thorson. As the carbon fiber materials gained popularity, he eventually started his own company to produce carbon fiber panels for customers.

From his parents’ garage to his first factory at the industrial park three years ago, and now the new facility at the development court, the company has changed from consumer-based to more business-to-business. Now, he claims to be one of the main carbon fiber manufacturers in the Midwest.

“It is beneficial being here in the Midwest,” said Thorson. “We can hit anybody in the United States in about four days max in shipping time.”

Composite Envisions ships to customers in California, Dubai, Europe, and even “the international space station.”

With the new factory, Thorson said he is excited to go out and seek bigger jobs and prepare for the hard work that comes with them.

“The next thing is to get more people here, to get more help,” said Thorson. Composite Envisions now has about six employees at the factory; he expects to hire two to three more in the coming month.

Photo at top: Cory Thorson (right) and an employee reveal the final product, a carbon fiber panel.(Iacopo Luzi/MEDILL)