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Steel fine tunes its battle plan to build marketshare in automotive

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In the Cecil B. DeMille epic movie The Ten Commandments, pharaoh Yul Brynner, weary of the plagues put upon Egypt, counters by telling the Jewish slaves that as punishment they must make their same tally of bricks without straw—in effect, ordering them to do more with less.

With new fuel economy standards and increasing crashworthiness requirements for new vehicles, the North American steel industry is finding itself in a similar situation. Not many in the industry are building steel pyramids, but the industry is facing the conundrum of trying to make vehicles lighter and more crashworthy while at the same time maintaining the highest possible percentage of steel they can in each vehicle.

In today's auto/steel production world, the first commandment might read "Build the same number of vehicles, if not more, but use more steel and make the cars lighter and more fuel efficient." An impossible task? No more so than making bricks without straw, at least for members of the Auto/Steel Partnership.

The partnership is a combination of steelmakers and automakers working together to use the latest generation of steels in vehicle construction. Among the partnership's goals is finding ways for steelmakers and their customers—automakers and parts fabricators in particular—to work together in vehicle design and construction so that new-generation vehicles can meet stricter government regulations related to fuel economy and crashworthiness.

"We want to see more cars built and, naturally, we want to see them built with steel," said Ron Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications for the Steel Market Development Committee of the American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington. "It truly is a challenge we are facing and it's being made tougher because of things like Cafe (corporate average fuel economy) standards and the re-emphasis on mass reduction. But we are making a lot of progress and we are taking the next step forward."

Those steps are being taken through advancements in steel technology resulting in the creation of advanced high-strength steels (AHSS), which are lighter and stronger than traditional steels. Krupitzer pointed out that in 2002, when the UltraLight Steel Auto Body-Advanced Vehicle Concepts program was launched, body structures were much heavier. The use of AHSS since then has helped reduce body structure weight by 21 percent, a figure that promises to improve as more original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) use more of the steels in their structures.

Krupitzer said one reason that AHSS are growing as quickly as they are lies in the development by the Auto/Steel Partnership of a toolkit of enablers—such as the recently published Auto/Steel Partnership/AHSS design and stamping process guidelines—to make their use easier for automakers.

"Right now, about 11 percent of vehicle weight is high-strength steels," Krupitzer said. "We want to get that number to 50 percent. One of the ways we think we can do that is by educating carmakers on how to use the steels. That's why we developed the toolkits. We know they (carmakers) want to use more high-strength steel. One of our goals is to find ways to help them to do it."

Another step that builds off the toolkits lies in the continuing collaborative work between steelmakers and automakers. Both sides are working to ensure they remain competitive through normal supplier/customer relationships that allow the technical transfer of steel technology to occur in the normal course of business. They also are conducting cooperative work on pre-competitive issues to reduce the cost of solving problems at individual companies.

Those collaborative efforts are manifesting themselves in 2009 in 17 ongoing projects that cover lightweighting and enabling and involve, among other efforts, looking at lightweight chassis structures; mass compounding; new generations of AHSS; application guidelines; steel testing; and technology transfer.

The project portfolio is under development for 2010, but already there are at least 13 in play, including some holdovers from the 2009 list as well as new ones, such as lightweight suspensions and looking into such areas as benchmarking, non-linear strain paths, painted surface appearance and precision flow form.

"One of the things that is most important is working with individuals to make sure they understand the material (AHSS), what the issues are and how to design with it," said Roger Heimbuch, executive director of the Auto/Steel Partnership. "They are the ones who have to fabricate the parts. They have to evaluate the automotive steels. We've spent a lot of time discovering how to transfer that knowledge. We've done a lot of case studies. It's important (through the partnership) to get the tools into the hands of the people who are going to be designing the next generation of parts."

Krupitzer said that when it comes time to evaluate the role steel plays in the carbon footprint of vehicles, it is important to consider the vehicle's full life cycle. He pointed out that while improvements in fuel economy measured in miles per gallon will positively impact the driving phase, it would be a mistake to ignore the carbon consequences of certain technologies like mass reduction through materials selection used by automakers to comply with Cafe standards. He said it is possible for higher-energy and CO2-intensive materials and processes to offset the benefits in the driving phase.

Steel, he said, has several advantages against other materials in that regard. WorldAutoSteel, the automotive group of the Brussels-based World Steel Association, in August released a second iteration of the automotive materials parametric Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) model, which allows for broader evaluations of automotive materials, powertrains, fuels and vehicle total energy consumed. Automakers can use the information to evaluate material selection decisions and their effect on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Research indicates that vehicles made of conventional steel produce more GHG emissions than either AHSS or aluminum vehicles in the "use phase" of the vehicle. However, the LCA model shows that drastically different levels of GHG emissions emerge from the material production stage of competing automotive materials. WorldAutoSteel's analysis shows the current average GHG emissions from primary production for conventional steel vehicles to be 2.3 to 2.7 carbon dioxide equivalents, a measure of carbon dioxide plus the carbon dioxide equivalent of other emissions such as perfluorocarbons. AHSS vehicles average the same 2.3 to 2.7 carbon dioxide equivalents, aluminum averages 13.9 to 15.5 and magnesium is considerably higher.

The research indicates that automakers should embrace an LCA approach, but Krupitzer said many existing or proposed government-driven regulations address only the use phase. Such regulations can lead automakers to choose GHG-intensive materials that may improve the use phase but increase the total life-cycle greenhouse gases.

"There are a lot of things going on as we try to meet these challenges," Krupitzer said. "For example, we're looking at vehicles to be made beyond 2020—hybrids and electric vehicles—and can they be built with steel. We are making progress. We're coming up with ways to help make the vehicles lighter and more fuel efficient, but maintaining the amount of steel they contain—not only maintaining, but growing the amount. We've won some skirmishes (against competing materials) but there are more battles looming."

Scott Robertson


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