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Material world

May 31, 2016 | 12:45 PM | Bill Beck


Material Sciences Corp. prides itself on being ‘metals neutral’ as it has quietly created a niche in electrogalvanizing steel for a variety of end-use customers, and more recently, coating metals for the automotive industry, on its way to growing as a key sector player on a variety of market fronts.

Vehicle lightweighting is perhaps the hottest topic in the North American automotive industry these days. Automobile and light-truck makers are under a federal mandate to increase fuel efficiency to an average of 54.9 miles per gallon by 2025. That’s nine model years away and for most automakers, and most vehicle platforms will only change two or three times between now and then.

Today, the average fuel consumption for a new vehicle is about 35 miles per gallon. That means automakers have to make up an average of about 20 miles per gallon in the next nine years.

The industry is taking several approaches to meeting and exceeding the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (Cafe) standards that were released by the federal government from 2009 to 2011. One obvious solution has involved reducing the weight of the metals that go into the typical automobile or light truck. Ford Motor Co. is reporting success with its introduction of the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck, and automakers are closely watching the experiment.

Steelmakers, who have long had a virtual monopoly on the automotive market, have countered with new alloys of high-strength steel (HSS), ultra-high strength steel (UHSS), and advanced, high-strength steel (AHSS). The steel industry argues that the cost of aluminum is as much as three times the cost of steel, and the new lines of high-strength steels will be substantially lighter, and much less costly than aluminum.

Meanwhile, a privately held company is working both sides of this automotive street. Material Sciences Corp. (MSC), Elk Grove Village, Ill., has quietly created a niche in electrogalvanizing steel for a variety of end-use customers, and more recently, coating metals for the automotive industry.

The company’s Quiet Aluminum, Quiet Steel and MSC Smart Steel are designed to meet the needs of automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers seeking to comply with Cafe standards. The coatings the company offers to OEMs and their metals suppliers help both to reduce weight and noise and vibration.

“We are seeing a lot of activity, a lot of focus at all of the OEMs,” Matt Murphy, MSC’s vice president of engineering solutions, said. “There are teams of people at the OEMs focused on validating the technology to sale weight. That did not exist five to 10 years ago. These companies are willing to spend money to save weight.”

Murphy, who works out of MSC’s Canton, Mich., technical center, said when he started with the company in 2001, cost was the number one factor when dealing with automotive OEMs. “Today,” Murphy said, “it’s weight savings, performance improvement and cost—in that order.” And Material Science Corp.’s ability to work with both aluminum and steel augurs a bright future for the company when it comes to automotive applications.

“We are metals neutral,” Murphy said. “If aluminum takes off, we can offer the marketplace Quiet Aluminum,” adding that the company also pre-treats aluminum for major producers like Alcoa Inc. and Novelis Inc. “We’re coating pre-treat aluminum at our Walbridge, Ohio, operation. The coils are then stamped, and they can be welded or bonded and riveted. The coating we apply is used to ensure the bond never comes apart.”

On the steel side of the equation, MSC supplies Quiet Steel®. The company’s operations in East Chicago, Ind., electrogalvanizes HSS and UHSS used in such automotive applications as bumper beams, rocker panels and headers. “It’s lighter weight, higher-strength steel,” Murphy said. “Our customers are the mills that supply the high-strength steel.”

MSC got its start in 1951 and developed a reputation for its ability to coat metals. In its early years, the company built 38 coil-coating lines around the world. The company then morphed into the sometimes esoteric world of laminates and composites. “MSC was essentially gluing steel and aluminum together to absorb sound,” Michael Noble, MSC’s chief commercial officer, said. “And then they developed a new product called MSC Smart Steel, supporting lightweighting in the automotive sector.”

Noble, a self-described “third-generation steel guy” who has spent the balance of his career in the service center segment of the business, explained that MSC is “the largest independent electrogalvanizing company certainly in North America, if not the world.” He noted that HSS and UHSS for exposed automotive applications can’t be run through a conventional hot-dip galvanizing line. “You have to run it through an electrogalvanizing line,” he said, “and we own and operate the only two electrogalvanizing lines in North America, at East Chicago, Ind., and Toronto, Ontario.”

The company has developed other product lines over the years besides automotive. Its construction lines are the company’s largest, comprising laminating and coating for residential garage doors, acoustical ceilings, roofing and siding, beverage markets, and consumer electronics. It also provides coatings for bakeware manufacturers, such as the muffin tins sold by popular retailers Williams-Sonoma Inc.

Another growing product line is coatings for munitions. The company has long provided coatings for sport shooting manufacturers of shotgun shells and is currently developing coatings for defense manufacturers of mortar shells. “We think we are going to grow in that market,” Noble noted.

MSC has undergone some exciting corporate transformations in the past several years. Long a publicly held company, MSC was acquired by privately held New Star Metals Inc. in 2014. Recognizing the quality of the Material Sciences brand, New Star renamed itself MSC in late 2015, and combined a number of companies, including Canfield Coating Co., Electric Coating Technologies LLC, World Class Corrugating LLC and Continuous Colour Coat Ltd. beneath the MSC umbrella. MSC encompasses operations in Elk Grove Village; East Chicago; Walbridge and Canfield, Ohio; and Toronto.

Pat Murley, chief executive officer of New Star Metals, said late last year that the decision to rebrand the company as MSC did not involve rocket science. “We are on an aggressive path,” Murley said at the time, going to market as one entity: Material Sciences Corp.

“When we acquired MSC, we gained access to the knowledge and reputation of this publicly traded, 64-year-old company,” he added. “Before long, we came to the conclusion that the superior brand recognition of Material Sciences Corp. could be applied effectively to the entire family of New Star Metals companies. We have more value to offer under the MSC banner, gaining access to new product applications and outstanding growth opportunities in North America and globally.”

Many of those new product applications emanate from the company’s Canton, Mich., technology center. MSC’s Murphy explained that the company’s 65,000-square-foot applications and research facility is 20 minutes from downtown Detroit and in close proximity to all the automakers in the Motor City. “We’re 20 minutes from Toyota, and under an hour’s drive from GM, Ford and Chrysler,” he said. “We work almost exclusively with OEMs, and almost all of our people here are engineers.”

Murphy noted the center handles primarily noise and vibration testing and product development. “Noise and vibration is very important for the automotive, electronics and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) sectors,” Murphy said. “We are looking for the most efficient solutions for weight and noise problems.”

The laminates that MSC is bringing into the marketplace have extra sound-damping properties, an important consideration for industrial customers interested in shedding weight. “We don’t have to add mastics, butyls, that kind of thing,” Murphy said. “And that saves weight. We don’t make the product heavier. Our laminates do not require those add-ons.”

MSC’s Canton facility encompasses three groups made up of about 30 scientists and engineers: A commercial team, a scientific team and a team of noise and vibration engineers. The scientific team includes a number of chemists, who work out of four chemistry laboratories at the site on coatings, seeking to improve resistance to corrosion. The noise and vibration engineers are concerned with predictive modeling. “The customer will often give us a CAD (computer-aided design) model of the problem they are attempting to solve,” Murphy said. “We give them a mathematical prediction of how that problem might be solved.”

Today’s problems in any kind of metals application typically involve saving weight and cost with equal or better performance. MSC’s work can turn into a stamping trial that is ultimately tested at a system level before moving into production mode. “We are looking at a system solution,” Murphy said. “I’m looking at the entire system of noise and vibration for that part.”

Murphy explained that aluminum is three times the cost of steel. “If the customer has to spend all that money and then put 40 percent of that weight back in in damping materials, then what’s the point?” Murphy asked.

As industry moves closer and closer to new metals and composites that save weight in everything from automobiles to computers, MSC and its product line and service portfolio continue to grow. In recent years, the company has begun to export its product lines to China, Italy, Mexico and Canada. The company is currently in discussion with German manufacturers about exports.

“It’s a pretty rare thing for a domestic steel company to export and be competitive,” MSC’s Noble said. “But we’ve got great people and great technology.”


 

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