Carbon Fiber Manufacturing: Life In The Fast Lane
deBotech Inc has been at the forefront of carbon fiber and advanced composite parts manufacturing for more than 20 years in the US. During that time, its products have lived a fast and furious life – attached to flying NASCAR race cars, Olympic gold-winning bobsleds and skeletons and, latterly, the eponymous Chevrolet Corvette car brand. With founder Hans deBot at the wheel, he raced Andy Probert through the twists and turns of a remarkable career founded on family, vision, spirit and unbridled ambition.
From a small garage deep in the late 1990s, you would have found Hans deBot most nights into the early hours toiling away and refining his ambitions. Over manufacturing and finessing carbon fiber components – and, no doubt, dreaming of one day hitting it big.
Today, from his office at deBotech Inc, in Race City USA, the home of NASCAR, he remains exceptionally humble of a career that has quite literally flashed before his eyes. Those ambitions, he admits, have paid him back big time, and some!
At the core of these life-changing moments, with his beloved wife, Jamye his daughter and son by his side, is carbon fiber. Whether as components for NASCAR teams or providing for such industries as aerospace, aviation, maritime, military… or a vet called Bill.
The demand for deBotech’s expertise is simple: the desire for a lighter material compared to traditional heavier ones for all kinds of applications. Carbon fiber is king whether it be for land, sea or air.
But more than 20 years back, a younger Hans worked for a sailboat mast manufacturer in Charlotte, North Carolina. During this time, the company, which mainly used aluminium to build sailboat spars, it began a carbon fiber division.
“The company brought someone in, and he failed. So I was asked to have a shot at it and I helped developed a process to build a one-piece continuous fibre hollow sailboat spar for America's Cup boats and race boats all over the world,” recalled Mr deBot
And he’s off!
Having anchored his expertise and running the company’s engineering division, Mr deBot generated interest from NASCAR racing teams in his local area of Mooresville – Race City USA – to build carbon fibre parts for their vehicles.
It was the offcuts or scraps generated from the carbon fibre during his daytime job; that he spotted an opportunity to reuse for other applications and race car parts.
“The company thought it was a good idea, but two weeks later, the owners split, and that interest died. So I decided to do it on my own. I worked in the day job till 9pm, and worked diligently in the garage of my house till the early hours, developing carbon fiber parts for racing cars,” he affirmed.
A neighbor, a chassis engineer for Hendrick Motorsports, saw Mr deBot’s skills and invited him to bring his parts to the company workshop. His first meeting was with NASCAR championship-winning crew chief Ray Evernham who, highly impressed, immediately sought to employ him on the spot.
He began developing products for Hendrick Motorsports, and he went to his day job and told them of the one-time opportunity and a dream he should pursue. The company agreed, and having left on good terms, the sailboat company later sold up and the business effectively closed.
“The opportunity to work with Hendrick was the right one in the long run. I continued to make products for them out of my own garage for another 18 months,” he smiled.
Pedal to the medal
A close friend, Greg Fornelli, also involved in the NASCAR industry, opened a new factory in Mooresville, distributing steel and aluminium materials to the race teams, and invited Mr deBot to move into a spare bay at the premises.
“Before you know it, because I was working with Hendrick, word spread and business expanded rapidly. I was one of the leaders at that time in the NASCAR industry, and because of the quality and level of expertise producing these parts, it quickly dominoed, and I began building and supplying to all of NASCAR teams.”
As the business and Mr Fornelli’s company boomed, Mr deBot moved to new premises in Lakeside Park. Here he strengthened his links with NASCAR, and supplied other motorsports industries: Nationwide, Craftsman Truck, Grand-Am Daytona Prototype Series, GT Series, ALMS, NHRA, SCCA, ARCA, World and Daytona SuperBike.
With the use of state-of-the-art technology, experience and practical knowledge, deBotech brought innovation to the forefront of the various racing industries.
“I developed a reputation that my word was my bond. I delivered on time, every time.”
Having worked with Bob and Bill Riley, of Riley Technologies, for which he builds road race car components for, he convinced them to move their business to North Carolina from Indianapolis. That led Mr deBot and the Rileys to build their businesses next door to each other.
“I continued supporting the NASCAR community and the Rileys, and then in 2008, the wheels fell off the economy which plunged into a deep recession,” recalled Mr deBot. “It hurt a lot of businesses in racing, but we saw the writing on the wall, took necessary measures to diversify and certified to build commercial aircraft and aerospace products.”
Striking Olympic gold
Mr deBot said the company survived and kept growing, still predominantly within automotive until he was challenged to build bobsled for one of the US teams for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
“I’d never built a bobsled in my life, but it was a new challenge. I built a bobsled, and made it to Salt Lake City. The technical director Bob Cunio from USA bobsled called and said: ‘Hans, that’s a work of art, let’s get working with you.’”
Since that day, Mr deBot has worked with the US bobsled team, even seeing the team claim the gold medal in 2010. He has been building the full bobsleds and skeletons since 2012.
Having transcended from sea, land, air, and even ice, Mr deBot realised the ultimate dream when he was convinced by colleagues to speak to a US automotive OEM.
“I was but a small peanut to them, and went to a meeting with an OEM in Detroit, and there was enough interest to begin my first product.”
That contract, in 2014, was for General Motors on its Chevrolet Camaro brand “and we have never looked back,” acknowledged Mr deBot. “We are now one of the biggest carbon fiber manufacturers for GM, and have worked multi-platforms for them.”
That resulted in running two shifts pre-Covid to the point that with GM demanding more from deBotech, Mr deBot bought a new facility from Mr Evernham. “Indeed, life has come full circle. We are now upscaling into a new state-of-the-art 60,000sqft premises, and will move in shortly.”
The company remains heavily involved with General Motors, with carbon fiber components for its vehicles. On the 2019 ZR1, deBotech built the majority of the carbon fiber products and is now working on the new mid-engine C8 Corvette, and other multi-level products for future Corvette models.
“Our state-of-the-art production facility and advanced manufacturing techniques ensure each part we produce is held to aerospace tolerances,” asserted Mr deBot. “We utilise a total systems approach, encompassing design support through production to ensure customers are satisfied.”
He added: “We are currently in expansion mode and want to ramp back up to not only two full production shifts, but a third. It is an open invitation to anyone in the UK and Europe who wants a great career to look us up and consider coming out here.”
Such is the demand for deBotech’s products that 75% of output is dedicated to automotive.
“Because of our expertise, we’re not afraid to turn our hands to anything. We have built sports products, defence products, personal injury products and even worked on medical products.”
Mr deBot added the company was currently engaged in research work for an American doctor working in the UAE to develop a donor heart transport unit.
“We’re also working with a vet, Bill Bickley, of PALS, from Texas, who approached us wanting to make carbon fiber prosthetic limbs for dogs. I looked at the product, believed in it, and undertook the R&D ourselves and got to a level where it now works. Nothing like seeing the joy in an owners face or the happiness in the dog giving them their mobility back it is truly inspirational.
“We have made many wonderful things for carbon fiber, but the most unusual has to be a bullet-proof cup for special protection in MMA fighting. That crossed over into the military to defend the femoral artery in the soldier.”
He added: “Carbon is growing in levels of excitement and energy conservation all over the world. People want to build lighter cars, but in motor racing, vehicle weight has always been critical.”
Growth and volume have continued on a substantial upward trajectory for the company, while expertise and technology have combined to build parts better, lighter and more complex.
“We can provide more technologically advanced products that others simply can’t manufacture,” stated Mr deBot. “I understand carbon fiber, plus I am not afraid to have the backbone to take risks. I have challenged myself many times, told clients to give me a shot at what they want, and I can build their products.”
However, Mr deBot pinpointed one challenge in general that is potentially stopping the sector from showing its true potential: skilled manpower.
“Finding self-motivated, self-driven and focused individuals is becoming more difficult to find. We have 12 million unemployed in the USA, but deBotech has difficulty finding 75 people who want a rewarding career and help us expand further.”
He added: “The automotive OEM world is very challenging, but we have the rigours, resilience, and tenacity to succeed. What sets us apart is the level of technology and to build better, provide the best customer service, and enjoy the journey. That’s why we have close relationships and support suppliers and clients alike. Ultimately, we are committed to being the number-one carbon fiber and advanced composite parts manufacturer in the world.
“This industry has one of the greatest potential growths wrapped around smart vehicles, energy, conservation, safety: all these avenues carbon fiber has input into.”
Mr deBot explained: “I have executives who believe in what we do, and none other than the chief engineer for Corvette, Tadge Juechter. He signed our company’s autoclave saying: ‘Hans, we will make history together'.
“That’s a reflection of the people we want to work with; those that they know will give as much effort and enthusiasm in building their end product. But the history making wouldn’t have been possible, if it wasn’t for wife Jamye as CFO and Vice President. She has been a truly exceptional insightful and inspirational partner on our journey together.”