Steel still relevant in auto production despite competition

2013-02-16T17:00:00Z Steel still relevant in auto production despite competitionBowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
February 16, 2013 5:00 pm  • 

HOBART | Steel isn't leaving its position as a dominant material in automobile production as automakers work to meet more stringent fuel economy standards in the next two decades.

However, industry representatives and consultants say other materials are growing their market share as steel companies work to develop a new range of products that remove weight from vehicles but also meet safety requirements.

Robert Ives, director of sheet quality assurance at United States Steel Corp. Gary Works, said Tuesday the last three months of discussions with automakers have encompassed about three years of materials decisions as companies are planning what their vehicle fleets will look like in the next three to five years.

While speaking at an Association for Iron & Steel Technology Midwest chapter meeting, Ives said the industry needs to bring a third generation of advanced high strength steel products to market to compete with the aluminum sector as its use becomes more prominent in automobile production.

In rules finalized last year, automakers will have to ensure their car and light-duty truck fleets meet the corporate average fuel economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by the 2025 model year. Advanced high-strength steels represent a spectrum of products are forged and processed not only to make the steel stronger, but also lighter weight compared to milder steel grades.

"We believe that these cars will come out with a lot of aluminum in the next generation," Ives said to more than 350 people at Avalon Manor. "... That's something we're watching very closely."

Consulting firm Ducker Worldwide released a forecast last year that the average amount of steel in light-duty vehicles in by weight in North America would fall 11 percentage points to 46 percent in 2025. Over the same time period, the amount of aluminum would nearly double to 16 percent in 2025. Advanced high-strength steel product usage is expected to rise from 194 pounds per vehicle to 375 pounds per vehicle in 2025.

"That's a lot of steel, but nobody likes to lose share," said Dick Schultz, a Pittsburgh-based project consultant at Ducker.

Schultz said smaller vehicles have been able to reach fuel mileage efficiency targets by adopting engine changes, but automakers are eying an increased use of aluminum and other materials including magnesium for trucks.

Depending on the application, the third generation of products will have to balance using alloys that can be costly while being able to undergo necessary transformations in forming, welding and painting processes without weakening or suffering other integrity issues, said Benda Yan, a manager at ArcelorMittal's global research and development center in East Chicago. Yan leads technology development for sheet steel applications in the automotive industry.

Hyun Jo Jun, senior research engineer at ArcelorMittal, said the domestic steel industry has to also upgrade aging infrastructure compared with steel operations in other parts of the world.

Bringing new steel products to market will also require more scrutiny at the operations level to ensure that products have the correct properties and characteristics desired by customers, Ives said.

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