Chances are, you know less about carbon fiber than you ever would've thought. The specialized, fibrous material that's got one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios you could hope for is only as good as the people producing it and the methods they use. Do it wrong and you might as well have made that spoiler of yours out of drywall.
It turns out that Seibon Carbon has been doing it right, though—since 2003, in fact, when the company first started turning out things like carbon-fiber hoods for cars like Civics and Integras. Seibon's operation has grown since then—a lot—and the company wants you to know what sets them apart from just about everyone else. For that, we turned to the people at Seibon, who gave us an inside look at the company's Los Angeles-based headquarters.
THE IDEA MAN
Before any specialized tools can be made, before any fancy procedures can be performed, and before any sort of quality control testing is done, it all starts with an idea. It's where every Seibon part begins and is where the company's years of experience are proven. Experience that tells its design team whether or not, for instance, it'll make more sense to start cranking out oh, say, carbon-fiber wings for an Evo instead of a Mitsubishi Mirage.
The market has a say, too, we're told. Vehicle sales and target demographics help Seibon's product planning team determine whether or not tooling up to make a pair of doors for something like that Evo still makes sense.
And some cars will always make sense. Like the WRX, which Seibon will always make parts for. That's because they've got confidence in that market, we're told, as well as for other strong players like that Evo and the 350Z. There are misses, though, in the midst of all of that success, like Honda's Fit, which a surplus of parts stockpiled in the company's warehouse is proof of.
THE R&D PHASE
Seibon's R&D process doesn't begin with a single part that'll get replicated by way of carbon fiber but with a whole Civic, for example. R&D starts with an entire car, where a particular model's studied for functionality and any shortcomings it might have are considered. A hood, for instance, is the most obvious choice for something Seibon might develop for a new chassis; after all, Seibon sells more than 2,000 of them each year. But manufacturing a hood isn't as easy as you think. We're told that the design team has to consider the entire car and its parts as a whole, and that the engine bay's got to be studied and reviewed in order to ensure things you'll end up caring about, like clearance and vent functionality. From there a preliminary design is conceptualized and passed through the company's R&D, sales, and marketing channels for potential suggestions or insight.
You think Seibon's operation is entirely computer controlled where robots flaunt around digitally scanning things like stock Nissan hoods and then dump that data into a machine that spits out something made out of carbon fiber, and you couldn't be more wrong.
Things like 3D scanners, for instance, certainly have their place at Seibon, but most of the time there's no replacement for hands-on development. By a human. Take a Seibon front spoiler, for example, which, has got to be shaped by hand. Their complex designs mean processes like 3D scanning just don't lend themselves well. In some cases Seibon's engineers are able to scan an OE part and work off of that, but it happens less often than you'd think.
And newer cars can present even more challenges. Their bumpers are thinner and flimsier than older cars, which means Seibon needs that whole car just to make something like a front lip since that bumper won't hold its shape once removed. But having an entire car for things as simple as a front spoiler is, in part, what's led to Seibon's tremendous growth. When the R35 GT-R was released, Seibon was one of Nissan's first customers. The purchase allowed the company to be the first to release an arsenal of dry carbon-fiber parts for the platform.
The idea's been planted and research has begun, but that doesn't mean anybody's ready for production. Specialized tooling has got to be made that'll allow Seibon's overseas factory to turn out more than just one of those Nissan hoods. Here, the car's original parts are used to create precise tooling, which will ensure optimal fitment that, often times, can yield tighter gaps and a better fit than that factory piece.
Creating that tooling isn't as straightforward as you'd expect, either. For the company's more popular parts, like its '92-'95 Civic hoods, for example, multiple tooling and molds are required just to keep up with demand. Often times, there are multiple sets of tooling all for the same hood. And despite how expensive that tooling can be, it doesn't last forever. The pressure in the autoclave, for example, wears the tooling out and wears the mold out. To maintain quality, the tooling's got to be maintained periodically; to that end, every so often the original OEM piece is put back in to confirm proper fitment. And when fitment is no longer as precise as they'd like it to be, the tooling's replaced. According to the people at Seibon, 300 pieces are about all you can hope for before those molds are no longer accurate; however, Seibon stops at the 100 mark to ensure proper fitment on every piece it sells.
There's more than one way to make something out of carbon fiber. The piece itself, how many will be made, and all sorts of other considerations determine what method's used. Hand-laying carbon fiber is the most basic method, but it's time-consuming and can yield a heavier finished product. The vacuum process is the industry standard, but there are different ways of going about it. And then there's the autoclave—the top-notch process, according to Seibon's engineers, of which all of Seibon's dry carbon-fiber parts are manufactured.
And although the vacuum process may be the standard, there are different levels of it, like vacuum fusion, for one. That said, vacuum technology doesn't vary a whole lot between manufacturers. It's with dry carbon and the autoclave where Seibon's able to exploit its own techniques. Seibon's vacuum infusion process does, however, result in parts that are lighter than its competitors'—not because less carbon fiber is used, but because of Seibon's specialized process that allows less resin to be used. They've got tricks for that, we're told. They've got to, especially since many new cars nowadays are sold with aluminum body panels that are already lightweight. Making something lighter is key.
One of the main differences between Seibon and its competition are its people, two of which are what the industry calls "composite masters." It's those composite masters who are able to not just follow carbon fiber-making protocol but develop new processes and techniques instead of always looking toward conventional methods. Having them on staff is the sort of luxury most companies don't have, and because of that Seibon's technology is continually improving.
Ensuring quality doesn't just happen when the final products are delivered to Seibon's Southern California headquarters for order fulfillment where every single part's inspected; it happens from day one. Prototypes, for instance, are test-fitted before tooling is finalized and then again afterward. And the company's in-house wind tunnel at its overseas facility, for example, ensures aerodynamic functionality and makes sure things like those vents and ducts do what they're supposed to. Quality control processes happen at the factory and then again in-house at Seibon. The second stage of quality control consists of a visual examination, repackaging, and fixing blemishes if necessary.
And when it comes to quality, Seibon takes it quite seriously. Fitment, quality, design, and pricing, we're told. Those are what are most important to the company, in that order. It's how carbon fiber's done. The right way.