Plasan VP: Bailout could really help

NEAL P. GOSWAMI, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/11/2008 03:07:07 AM EST
Thursday, December 11

BENNINGTON A local auto-parts manufacturer working with composite materials is weathering a traumatic period in the automotive industry, according to a company official.

And business could even take off, if Congress approves a federal bailout plan for America's Big Three automakers that is being shaped on Capitol Hill, said Plasan Carbon Composites Vice President Dalton Blackwell.


Downturn

The company, which produces automotive body parts made of carbon composite materials, has avoided, for the most part, a significant downturn in orders that most car part makers have seen. The reason, Blackwell said, is that the company produces parts for high-end vehicles.

Among the cars Plasan produces parts for are the Corvette ZR1, the Corvette Z06, the Ford Shelby GT500KR and the Dodge Viper ACR. Blackwell said people who can afford such vehicles are less impacted by the current recession.

"The vehicles that our parts are on, unfortunately including myself we cannot afford those vehicles," he said. "The people that can are not affected."

The company recently laid off 64 workers, but they were all contracted employees who were part of a project that ended, according to Blackwell. Half of the contract employees were let go about two weeks ago, and the other half were laid off this week, he said.

"It was a short-term program from the beginning," Blackwell said. "There was a plan all along that this would happen."

The contract was to work for the company for less than one year to make a part for a specific car.

Only 1,747 of the cars were being manufactured, according to Blackwell. Most of the employees were on the job for less than six months. However, if the company wins a similar contract, those same workers will be sought, he said.

The company now has a work force of about 250, a mix of both contract and permanent employees, Blackwell said.

"The message that I'm giving to the team here, is that the team we have left is the team we expect to go forward with," he said.

Blackwell said the company has faced challenges that other automotive-related companies have seen, but the company has cornered a "niche market." The "lightness and strength" of the carbon composite materials used by Plasan has allowed it to stay on top.

"We have had some of our contracts slowed slightly, but the sales for 2009 are right where we had projected them," he said.

And the attributes of the carbon composite materials Plasan uses "will help dramatically if the bailout occurs," according to Blackwell.

Plasan officials have met with the product development teams of Ford, GM and Chrysler about how Plasan can reduce the mass of those companies' vehicles.

"If the Big Three do get the buyout ... the money is going to go in favor of Plasan," he said. "We have met with all of the big three and other domestics ... about how we can improve fuel economy."

Carbon fiber is emerging as a practical and cost-competitive alternative for mid-volume production cars as higher fuel prices and Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards increase, according to Plasan. Gas mileage on vehicles can increase by 7 percent if the vehicle mass decreases by 10 percent, the company maintains.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com