Kennewick’s Carbitex turns carbon fiber into fabric

Luggage, shoes and stereo covers made from carbon fiber fabric were only a dream until a few years ago.

That is, until Junus Khan discovered a way to create material that would stand up to the standards and strength needed for consumer goods like luggage.

Now, Carbitex, the company the Kennewick man started in February 2012, makes carbon fiber fabric for customers worldwide.

Carbon is stronger than steel and aluminum pound for pound, Khan said. But carbon can’t be dyed like a cotton fabric. It is always black. Carbitex uses a special coating to tint the black carbon fiber material with different colors.

TiLite, the Pasco-based manual wheelchair manufacturer, is the only local company using Carbitex’s fabric.

New Jersey manufacturer Tumi launched its luggage line featuring Carbitex’s fabric in fall 2014. The soft, flexible Cx6 material is co-branded on the luxury Tumi luggage.

And when General Electric decided to remake the moon boot to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first moon walk, the company decided to use Carbitex’s fabric. The boots Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts wore when they walked the moon on July 20, 1969 were made out of General Electric silicon rubber.

Only about 100 pairs of the limited-edition Mission sneakers were made, and they were sold online-only for $196.90, to commemorate the year of the first moon walk. Now, a pair goes for quite a bit more, Khan said.

He has a pair himself, but he’s worn them less than a handful of times and never to actually walk outside.

“It’s been exciting and fun and definitely without a doubt a team effort,” Khan said.

Demand for his unique fabric has prompted him to add employees, going from a handful to more than 14 this year. It also means his company is using more space in one of the Port of Kennewick’s Oak Street development buildings.

“We are in the process of scaling up again,” Khan said.

Khan, 31, a New Jersey native, had always wanted to start his own business. He studied economics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and began working for an events company.

He worked on a business plan for launch events for the high-end automotive industry. After turning that effort into a reality, he decided he wanted to work in the automotive industry instead.

He conceived the idea for Carbitex before he started working as a consultant for Koenigsegg, a high-end, well-respected Swedish manufacturer of supercars. While living in Kennewick, he helped the company set up sales infrastructure and create a sales and marketing plan for North America.

Khan saw a demand for carbon fiber in consumer products. The military and aerospace and automotive industries already were using it. But he thought it could be more versatile.

At first, he thought about creating something out of carbon fiber material, but he couldn’t find anyone to produce that fabric for him in 2010.

Khan had found his niche.

He did some research on his own, and came up with a method he thought would work. Through Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s technology assistance program, Khan was able to use the lab’s equipment to prove his method by running some tests.

Carbitex started manufacturing carbon fiber fabric in August 2012 to fulfill an order by JBL, an electronics company owned by Harman International, Khan said.

JBL wanted to make high-end speakers appear more modern with the use of carbon fiber. They gave Khan only about two months to deliver the desired fabric.

That was a steep task — at the time, Khan was still operating the company out of his garage.

Some of how Carbitex makes its carbon fiber fabric is a trade secret and some of the processes and the materials await patents. The company designed its own machines.

“It’s not going to be easy for someone to copy what we are doing,” he said.

Carbitex buys raw carbon fiber, woven in different patterns, which is delivered on rolls.

Texture and the pattern of the carbon material can be different. Carbitex can weave the carbon fiber in different patterns, create different ranges of flexibility and add sheen.

In general, carbon fiber goes through somewhere between two to seven processes in Carbitex’s manufacturing facility. Specialized forms of coating, impregnation and lamination are used, and sometimes heat as well.

The company tests samples of its materials in a lab as new materials are developed and as a quality control check when producing fabric for specific customers.

Customers may want a certain look and feel, but they also may want the fabric to be difficult to scratch and to stand up well to wear and tear, said Kevin Simmons, the company’s vice president of engineering.

So Carbitex uses different machines to see how much pressure is required to scratch the fabric and how much movement can happen before the fabric begins to wear down and form a hole, Simmons said.

For example, with the bally flex tester, a sample of the fabric is folded, and the machine moves the fold up and down as it gently rocks.

They use the specifications requested by their customers to determine how to process the carbon fiber, Khan said.

“We engineer this material for the application,” he said.