Less is more: Institute Sees Strong Future for Lightweight Steel

Interstate 94, which runs past Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, is the route to Dearborn ‚Äì where Ford has its world headquarters ‚Äì and to downtown Detroit, where GM’s main offices are located. It also connects to I-75, which will bring you to Auburn Hills, home of the Chrysler Corporation.

So it’s not surprising to see billboards along I-94 advertising turbochargers, engineering solutions and other products that a typical consumer will never set out to purchase. These ads are aimed at purchasing executives who oversee the multi-billion dollar budgets required to buy parts and materials for U.S. auto production.

I was surprised, however, when I drove by a large billboard alongside I-94 the other day with a slogan that appeared to be pointed directly at me: “54.5 by 2025.”

I did a double-take: Did DrivingGrowth.org start buying billboards – but nobody told me? Is the Obama administration touting its new fuel economy standards via outdoor advertising?

Neither. This particular ad is sponsored by AutoSteel.org, a project of the Steel Marketing Development Institute (SDMI). I wanted to know more, and a few phone calls later, I sat down to breakfast with Ron Krupitzer and Dave Anderson of SDMI, which serves as a research and promotion arm for America’s steel industry.

Steel can be made lighter and still retain the strength required to make safe, stable automobiles, say Krupitzer and Anderson. The overall weight of U.S.-made vehicles – and their key components – is more important than ever, due to the industry-wide drive for higher fuel efficiency.

The math is simple: If a vehicle weighs less, the engine has to work less hard to move it, which means lower fuel usage and higher fuel economy. On a typical vehicle, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, a ten percent reduction in weight equals about a five percent gain in fuel efficiency.

The search for materials that weigh less with no compromise on performance means that auto purchasing executives are hearing more often than ever from makers of aluminum, magnesium, high-strength plastic composites and other lightweight materials than can be used in car bodies, doors, hoods, and other components.

The steel industry, Krupitzer says, has seen this movie before. “In the 1950s,” he points out, “magazine articles were saying the day of steel is on the wane, soon to be replaced by aluminum and other materials.” Not quite. In 1975, steel made up 55% of the weight of an average vehicle. Now, it’s about 60 percent, even as overall vehicle weight has dropped to some 3,750 pounds, down from about 4,000.

The steel industry has been working for decades to develop high strength, low-weight metal, says Kruptizer. The superior properties are achieved by altering the chemical mix of the primary materials used in steel manufacturing, and changing the pace and temperature of the fabrication process — “how you cook it,” in layman’s terms.

For 25 years, between 1985 and 2010, U.S. fuel economy standards for cars flatlined at 27.5 mpg. “During the flatline,” says Krupitzer, “it was all about performance. More weight was added to carry larger loads, air bags, DVD players and other accessories. Automakers used our lighter weight steel applications to avoid weight increases.”

In the new paradigm – pushed by higher federal standards and strong consumer preference for fuel efficiency – lightweight materials will be used to actually make vehicles lighter.

With dozens of different grades available in various weights and thicknesses, Krupitzer is confident steel can stand up against competing materials. Manufacturers save money, he says, by sticking to the materials they’ve used for decades. “You don’t have to change the stamping, you still have the welders, the diemakers. It keeps the infrastructure in place.”

New laser welding processes now allow manufacturers to join high and low-strength steel into a single piece of fabricated metal. That enables key auto parts – like the post between vehicle doors – to have needed strength and hardness at critical stress points, while using lighter materials where less hardness is required.

Advanced high-strength steels are already on the road in vehicles such as the Cadillac ATS, the Chevy Volt and Chevy Sonic, Infiniti JX35, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Ford Fusion. Looking ahead, SDMI has partnered with Detroit automakers to design a prototype “Future Steel Vehicle.”

The demonstration project, says Dave Anderson, is conceived as an electric-battery powered vehicle “that reduces weight with no increase in cost. We can achieve 25% to 35% less weight at no cost impact.” The steel components of the basic car “body-in-white” (not including doors or a hood) for a prototype vehicle can be manufactured and assembled at a cost of $1,115 ‚Äì essentially no different from using current conventional materials.

U.S. steel companies directly employ over 139,000 workers, and Krupitzer sees new employment opportunities driven by the need to deliver lightweight materials that will boost fuel efficiency. “There will be new jobs because of the new processes we’re working on,” he says. “New technology requires new people.”

Because steel is a heavy material and expensive to ship, auto manufacturers prefer to have supply located near their manufacturing facilities ‚Äì and Krupitzer says the U.S. steel industry aims to keep it that way. During a recent trip to a phone store, he recalls, he picked up a handset that was marked “Designed in the United States, Manufactured in China.”

“We don’t want that label,” he says. “We want to have steel designed and built here in the domestic market.”

Roger Kerson is a Michigan-based media consultant for labor unions and environmental organizations. He was formerly the director of public relations at the United Auto Workers.


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