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New regulations accelerate automotive lightweighting

Keywords: Tags  Tesla Motors Inc., Model S, automotive lightweighting, Jay Baron, Center for Automotive Research, HSS, high-strength steel, Steel Market Development Institute SMDI

The automotive sector is changing more rapidly than it has at any time during the past two decades. New regulations, coupled with renewed consumer demand for ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles, have given rise to a diverse set of challenges for automakers. In turn, suppliers of steel and aluminum have been asked to provide lighter-weight materials that also offer greater ductility, elongation and tensile strength.

In response to such demands, a number of metal producers--particularly those in the aluminum sector--are projecting unprecedented growth in 2013, while others point to a decline in certain steel products.

“(Last year) was a good year for the automotive industry,” said Dave Anderson, senior director on the automotive technical panel at the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI). “In addition, we see 2013 shaping up as a good year for production in North America in the automotive sectorÑand that includes the steel that goes into cars and trucks. We are estimating that steel will (account for) 58 to 68 percent of the average vehicle, so with increased production we anticipate increased demand for steel.”

However, the sentiment for outmoded steels--namely, mild steel--is less optimistic. Because of growing demand for ultra-light, super-strong metals and composites, many automakers are planning to trim their use of heavier, less-technologically advanced components.

“Most of the mild steel applications--hood, fender, body panels--can be readily lightweighted using other types of metals,” said Jay Baron, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “That’s where mild steels are generally foundÑin high-formability and low-structural-roll components. Those panels are very conducive to aluminum.”

There is a growing consensus among steel insiders that mild steel might soon become a thing of the past. In the long term, it’s projected that consumption of mild steels will slowly decline as other materials, such as high-strength steel (HSS), advanced high-strength steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and magnesium, are used to satisfy increasingly stringent fuel-efficiency requirements.

One example of mild steel’s rapid deceleration can be found in vehicle hoods: Roughly 30 percent of the automobiles produced in the United States now have aluminum hoods. “That number is only going to continue to rise,” said Baron, who added that other body components, including doors and roofs, also could see a transition to aluminum.

In the meantime, high-strength steels seem in line for an uptick in 2013. Fuel economy and safety requirements are “only going to continue to increase,” Baron said, and with stepped-up safety requirements comes the need for better construction of the passenger compartment and the use of materials that can withstand and absorb the effects of intrusion-related accidents.

According to Baron, HSS is still the preferred material for use in passenger compartments and other supporting safety structures. “Very-high-strength steel may displace some of the lower-strength steel, but it will also keep out the use of aluminum,” he said. “You may see aluminum in the structure, but in the cockpit area high-strength steel is the most desired material.”

Ron Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications at the SMDI, is similarly optimistic about the continued growth prospects for advanced HSS, particularly in the automotive industry. “One criticism people have had about steel is thinking that we have done all we can do with high-strength steel,” he said.

But auto companies have continually surprised manufacturers with the introduction of new technologies and processes that utilize steel’s properties. In 2012, for example, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. introduced new hydroforming techniques for critical-strength parts in the 2013 Fusion model. “They were able to successfully reduce the overall weight of the vehicle while providing a cost-effective solution that integrated the use of advanced high-strength steel,” Krupitzer said.

Other companies, such as Providence, R.I.-based NanoSteel Co., are looking to develop technological innovations to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the automotive industry and its regulators. NanoSteel chief executive officer David Paratore said the automotive sector is driving these advancements because of its continued need for HSS that is lighter than conventional steel products.

“(General Motors Ventures LLC) came to us and said they needed a material with 1,200-(megapascal) tensile strength and 20 percent elongation,” Paratore said. “In 2011, we spent the entire year trying to create that material. By the end of the year, we had created the material and had it validated by a third party, but it was still just lab samples. (Last year) was all about taking it out of the lab and bringing it into large-scale production. We are currently in the midst of trials ... working with two large-scale companies, getting the product out of the lab and into production.” He said NanoSteel plans to give the new material to GM for validation by the first quarter of 2013.

Along with its physical attributes, Paratore indicated that NanoSteel’s new material will allow automakers to continue using existing manufacturing techniques without sacrificing quality or safety. “I think NanoSteel’s role in the automotive industry is the first step in third-generation high-strength steels,” he said. “I feel we are looking at today in terms of options; there are very few options that are provided to the auto industry that allow them to continue to use cold-forming techniques with advanced high-strength steel.”

To be clear, it’s not that automakers don’t have solutions in place for lightweighting, Paratore said. The problem lies in the feasibility of translating solutions into real-world applications that allow for cost-effective ways of making highly advancedÑand structurally complexÑmaterials. Paratore sees NanoSteel’s new material as a panacea for many of these issues. “It’s lightweighting made easy.”

Kevin Lowery, director of corporate communications at Pittsburgh-based aluminum producer Alcoa Inc., said many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are turning to aluminum because they have reached critical thresholds in their ability to utilize advanced HSS.

“It’s really about the unique attributes of aluminum vs. other materials,” Lowery said. “It’s high-strength; it’s durable, lightweight and flexible; the body sheets are done on the same stamping equipment that OEMs would use for other materials. Overall, it fits nicely with what they are hoping to achieve.”

Lowery believes that many automakers eventually could turn to aluminum almost exclusively for body panels, engine components and other structural elements. He specifically cited Tesla Motors Inc.’s all-aluminum electric Model S. “Every visible metal is aluminum,” he said of the Model S. “Over the past four years, aluminum has become the second-most-used material in auto manufacturing. We think we are poised for growth in 2013 and will do so very strongly.”

Part of that growth, according to Lowery, will be the result of more-stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (Cafe) requirements that call for higher fuel efficiency.

“The Cafe requirements are broken into two different areas: hitting 35.5 (miles per gallon) in 2016 and hitting 54.5 (miles per gallon) by 2025” vs. the current standard of 27.2 miles per gallon, Lowery said. “The only way to achieve these goals is to lightweight the vehicle, and increasing the amount of aluminum in each vehicle will, in effect, produce lighter automobiles.”

Because of the importance placed on lightweighting--which might, in fact, be the auto industry’s primary focus in 2013--aluminum likely will experience rapid growth over the next year or two, according many industry insiders.

“Aluminum is making faster inroads than in the past decade primarily because of a push for fuel economy,” Baron said. “The legislative issues are driving the demand for lightweighting a little more aggressively than they have in the past. Because of that, I think there are huge advantages for aluminum in the automotive sector.”

Steelmakers are aware that these stepped-up requirements could be potentially damaging to the steel industry as a whole, but automakers are examining all aspects of what affects fuel efficiency, including powertrain components; parasitic losses, such as friction; rolling-resistant tires; coefficient of drag; as well as lowering the overall weight of the vehicle.

“We are aware that there are lightweighting efforts at all of the OEMs that are designed to help meet the requirements of the future,” Anderson said. “And with steel being the material of choice, we know we have a very large target on our back.”

But incorporating a usable, well-designed supply chain for aluminum won’t be as easy as it might seem, Baron said. “The capacity for aluminum is there, but is the supply chain ready to make ideal use of aluminum? The European auto companies are very good at using these advanced materials; they have been working at it longer. For American auto manufacturers, just because they are good at stamping steel doesn’t mean they are good at stamping aluminum. There is a learning curve.”

To combat outside-industry pressures, the SMDI, in conjunction with the FutureSteelVehicle program, has been encouraging its member affiliates to work toward the continued development and growth of technologies that will, in essence, protect the use of steel in autos for decades to come.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” Krupitzer said of the SMDI. “We have a lot of work that we recently introduced in the FutureSteelVehicle program, and as part of that we introduced many advanced high-strength steel grades. We need to make sure that we can manufacture those and that the auto guys can form them.

“Additionally, we have introduced the concept of the third generation of advanced high-strength steels, which are more formable and still remain cost-effective,” he said. “We just need to continue moving the bar forward.”

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