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Wide use of light steels in auto parts growing

Jun 18, 2014 | 04:09 PM | Nat Rudarakanchana

Tags  steel, lightweight steel, aluminum, automotive, Steel Market Development Institute, SMDI, Lawrence Kavanagh, high-strength steel Ford Motor


NEW YORK — Lightweight high-strength steel parts that would rival aluminum automotive components are gaining traction in vehicles on the road, but there's still more room for growth as full adoption in vehicles isn't expected until at least 2017, according to Lawrence W. Kavanagh, president of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI).

And it takes roughly five years for vehicle design concepts to become manufactured cars, so car designs with steel parts circulating now might hit the road in 2019.

This is despite promising research into commercially viable steel parts that outperform aluminum components, he told AMM June 16 on the sidelines of the Steel Success Strategies XXIX conference in New York.

Such research has already shown that steel can compete with aluminum on weight, formability and quality, while costing significantly less, Kavanagh said.

"We are not nearly at the limit of what we can do with advanced high-strength steels," he said. "The advanced high-strength steels that are commercially available today are not fully adopted yet as our automaker customers learn how to use them properly."

The five-year lag from concept to production might explain the popularity of lightweight aluminum parts, according to remarks made June 17 during a panel discussion at the conference, sponsored by AMM and World Steel Dynamics Inc. (WSD).

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. unveiled its move to an aluminum body for the F-150 pickup truck earlier this year (amm.com, Jan. 13), drawing concern from steelmakers.

The automaker likely made design decisions about the F-150 five years ago in the depths of the economic recession, when less information about steel alternatives was available, Kavanagh said. Ford’s move toward aluminum also is far from unanimous among automakers, AK Steel Corp. chief executive officer James L. Wainscott said, citing remarks by Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler Group LLC.

Top executives from Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA, West Chester, Ohio-based AK Steel and Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Corp. echoed Kavanagh’s defense of automotive steel, maintaining that the material will remain a top pick for vehicle manufacturers in the near term.

"Steel can already achieve the required weight reductions, and we can do it in a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner," ArcelorMittal chairman and chief executive officer Lakshmi N. Mittal said in a June 17 keynote speech. "No one should doubt that steel remains the material of choice."

Mittal cited the "hundreds of millions of dollars" his company has invested in research on suitable automotive steel, alongside its portfolio of more than 60 high- and ultra-strength steels that weigh less. ArcelorMittal is still eyeing fast-growing automotive markets—such as Mexico—he added, pointing to the company’s acquisition of the Calvert, Ala., steel facility in February that was formerly owned by Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG (amm.com, Feb. 26).

SMDI’s research budget for applications of advanced high-strength steel recently doubled to roughly $4 million, Kavanagh said, adding that the research will increase.

Steel parts also can satisfy required fuel-efficiency standards for several different types of vehicles, many steel advocates and executives claimed.

Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based WSD is working on a cost-benefit analysis comparing automotive steel and aluminum, which is expected to be completed within three months, company analysts said June 17.

But there are trade-offs on cost, quality and current commercial availability, steel executives acknowledged throughout the conference.

"I think the jury is out. It’s a pretty big bet. We’ll see what happens," Wainscott said.

Editor's note: This story was updated June 19, 2014.




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