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High-strength steel finds foothold in auto industry

Keywords: Tags  AHSS, advanced high-strength steels, U.S. Steel Corp., Automotive Press Association, John P. Surma, SMDI, Steel Market Development Institute, Lawrence W. Kavanagh Great Designs in Steel Seminar

The use of advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) in vehicles has grown faster than any other material in recent years, and that growth will continue over the next decade, according to experts in the steel and automotive industries who cite new technological developments and increasingly stringent environmental standards for driving the change.

Steel is the material that will allow automakers to meet future fuel-economy standards, according to John P. Surma, chairman and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp. Speaking at an Automotive Press Association luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club in April, Surma said that new steel grades will play a critical role in evolving automotive designs to meet the U.S. government’s fuel economy mandate of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2015.

Steel has a wide range of properties that allow it to satisfy ever-stricter vehicle safety and performance requirements while generating significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than other materials, Surma said. That, combined with steel’s competitive cost, will ensure the continued development and growth of AHSS.

Surma touted the success of the FutureSteelVehicle program, which demonstrates how new steels and design methods can reduce body-in-white mass by 39 percent compared with traditional steel bodies while also reducing life-cycle emissions by nearly 70 percent--all without a cost increase. He also cited a project in which a front lower control arm made from an alternative material was replaced with advanced high-strength steel at a 30-percent cost reduction.

“The combinations of scientific research and product development have brought our industry to this point in the development of new steels,” Surma said. “Now, as an industry, we are continuing our research on the next generation of advanced high-strength steels.”

During his presentation, Surma outlined an aggressive collaborative project to help create the next generation of advanced steel grades. In February, the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), together with the Auto/Steel Partnership and the U.S. Automotive Materials Partnership, received a $6-million award from the U.S. Energy Department for a four-year project to develop integrated computer models to accelerate the development of weight-saving high-strength products. Five universities, two engineering companies and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will participate with steel companies and automakers in the research project.

“The program will start from atomic- and nano-scale models of steel and continue through the performance of these steels in actual vehicles,” Surma said. “Establishing such intelligent systems for new steel development will be a powerful tool to help our industry design the steels of tomorrow.”

A month after Surma made his remarks, more than 1,400 steel and automotive experts gathered in Livonia, Mich., for the Great Designs in Steel Seminar, a forum to discuss new material grades--such as the latest class of nanostructured third-generation cold-formable advanced high-strength steels--and share resources and tools, such as the Auto/Steel Partnership’s Joining Knowledge Base Team.

“The event provided compelling evidence about advanced steel’s current and future place in automotive applications,” SMDI president Lawrence W. Kavanagh said. “Steel’s lightweighting potential, combined with its stellar safety and environmental benefits, make it the complete package automakers will match with new engine technologies to achieve (the target of) 54.5 miles per gallon in the future.”

More than 35 presenters discussed the design, development and use of advanced high-strength steels, highlighting the future for these new materials and how they will be implemented in future vehicles. Recent research shows that advanced high-strength steel body structures can be as lightweight as aluminum bodies while meeting all crash performance standards and matching today’s costs, according to the SMDI.

“The (Great Designs in Steel) presentations debunked the misconception that steel is somehow unable to provide the lightweighting benefits of alternative materials,” Kavanagh said. “Given its unique chemical properties, steel can be formulated to satisfy vehicle performance, safety and emissions requirements at the lowest cost and environmental impact. Other materials just can’t compete with this package of benefits.”

Leading automakers--including Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich.; Detroit-based General Motors Co.; Honda R&D Americas Inc., Torrance, Calif.; and Russelsheim, Germany-based Hyundai Motor Europe Technical Center GmbH--presented vehicle reviews of steel body structure lightweighting capabilities. They also presented application-specific examples demonstrating steel’s benefits compared with competing materials, including reviews of steel vs. aluminum bumpers and steel vs. plastic fuel tanks.

“This year’s event offered example after example of how the auto and steel industries are accelerating their work to reinvent steel and cars to provide affordable solutions for new vehicle mass reduction and performance targets,” Kavanagh said. “With the current and future research and development discussed (at the seminar), as well as steel’s unique ability to be continuously reinvented, the material’s role in the future of the automotive industry is hard to dispute.”

New technological advances likely will speed up the growth of steel. For example, SMDI and Brussels-based WorldAutoSteel unveiled a new tool in the spring that enables vehicle designers to quickly and accurately evaluate the tradeoffs--such as mass, cost and greenhouse gas emissions--associated with using different materials. The Design Advisor software was developed by Don Malen of the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering to assist automotive decision makers in evaluating and selecting the material that best fits the requirements of a given application.

SMDI, a business unit of the Washington-based American Iron and Steel Institute, said that material selection for automotive components is complicated by several factors. Since material decisions for components influence the entire vehicle, Design Advisor helps the engineer understand how material decisions affect numerous criteria, including vehicle mass, cost, fuel economy and environmental impact.

“Since these criteria are not easily combined as a single objective number, the decision maker must be presented with potential effects on mass, cost and greenhouse gas emissions so appropriate tradeoffs can be evaluated and selected,” Malen said. “The Design Advisor software provides decision makers with the ability to evaluate various materials at a vehicle system level.”

Since material decisions often are made early in the vehicle design cycle, the software is configured to operate with only the information available in the vehicle planning stage. The mathematical models used in the Design Advisor software draw from the research and findings of several projects supported by SMDI; WorldAutoSteel; Southfield, Mich.-based Auto/Steel Partnership; and Southfield, Mich.,-based U.S. Automotive Materials Partnership LLC. Along with a complete version of the Design Advisor software, decision makers may download a user guide and case study examples demonstrating the software’s functionality and use.

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