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Steel to remain king of hill in automotive: SDMI

Keywords: Tags  Steel Market Development Institute, Larry Kavanagh, Ronald Krupitzer, Great Designs in Steel, advanced high-strenth steel, aluminum, plastic, Ford F-150 Michael Cowden

LIVONIA, Mich. — Steel will remain the material of choice for cars and trucks as advanced high-strength steels increasingly gain traction among automakers, sometimes at the expense of competing materials such as aluminum, Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI) executives said in an interview.

"Right now we’re working on vehicles that are going to launch in ’17, ’18 and ’19, which is why I know you are going to see continued high adoption of high-strength steels," SMDI president Lawrence W. Kavanagh said May 14 at the group’s Great Designs in Steel conference in Livonia, Mich.

That’s because each new launch provides another chance for a vehicle to be redesigned with more high-strength steel, he said, noting that the conference drew "record" registration of about 1,600 people vs. 1,300 to 1,400 in past years.

Key automotive applications can be made using steel that are just as light as aluminum, according to Ronald Krupitzer, SMDI’s vice president for the automotive market, pointing to an aluminum-forged front lower control arm—on display at Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp.’s booth at the event—that had been replaced by a "less expensive" steel version.

Other applications made out of mild steel—such as twist beams—have been made stronger and lighter using high-strength steels, he said. "We have a growing portfolio of new, advanced high-strength steels that take us up to strengths that really weren’t available before in cold-forming steel," Krupitzer said.

As higher-strength steels become available for everything from body panels and structures to rails and bumpers, they’re attracting the attention of car companies because they are just as light as aluminum, and less expensive, he said.

And while high-strength steels might be more expensive than mild steels, their costs remain "way below" aluminum, which carries a price tag of as much as two to three times that of steel, Kavanagh said. "It does a lot of damage to the business case for aluminum when steel can match their weight or closely approximate it."

Dismissing questions about Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. making its F-150 pickup with an aluminum body-in-white, Krupitzer said advanced high-strength steels can also be used to reduce weight even in larger vehicles. Automakers have already expressed "keen interest" in high-strength steels for trucks, sports utility vehicles and larger sedans as far out as the 2018 model year, he said.

And just because aluminum is seeing interest from automakers now doesn’t mean the trend will prove durable, Kavanagh and Krupitzer said.

In the mid-1980s there was an effort to put plastic body panels on vehicles that later lost popularity, Krupitzer noted. "Metal came back, and steel predominantly replaced plastic in all those cases," he added.

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