Steel’s latest automotive answer to aluminum competition

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An employee treats a side panel of an Infiniti Q30 car on the production line at the Nissan Motor Co. plant. in Sunderland, UK Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Advanced high-strength steel, the latest, lightest steel that has been invented, is intended to hold off the rise of aluminum as the metal of choice for a car industry in the midst of major changes.

Lightweight aluminum has wiped out the use of steel in vehicles because fuel efficiency standards have increased. Now steel manufacturers are fighting back. Their latest alloy could find its way to car manufacturers by 2021, some will be available in next year, according to Eric Petersen, vice president for research and innovation at AK Steel Holding Corp.

The new steel will be marketed as stronger, less expensive and almost as light as aluminum in a time of desperation for car manufacturers. Fuel standards are being attacked, a trade war threatens to increase costs, and the automotive industry is racing toward a future with electric cars that consumers claim to be moving forward with a single load.

For car manufacturers, "the biggest bang for their money will be in the powertrain and battery supply," Petersen said. "Once you've put your dollars there, you'd better go with a cheaper solution in steel."

Steel has long been the main choice for car parts and remains so today, accounting for about 55 percent of vehicles on average, compared with about 10 percent for aluminum. But the amount of aluminum in use has increased over the last three to five years, said Abhay Vadhavkar, head of manufacturing, engineering and technology at the Center for Automotive Research.

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In 2014 Ford Motor Co. introduced for example, a redesigned version of its F-150 pick-up truck – the best-selling vehicle in America – with an aluminum body, part of a service that Vadhavkar sees as "fairly important" given it was achieved at larger companies.

Now there is change in the air again.

In August, President Donald Trump proposed to maintain fuel efficiency standards at 37 mpg, starting in 2020. That would eliminate a requirement that by 2025 they would rise to 47 mpg, as requested by the Obama administration. The argument of the administration: making vehicles lighter is expensive, so that consumers can not buy newer, safer vehicles.

At the same time, the tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum by Trump threaten to increase the cost of automakers for materials from abroad.

Both are seen as, perhaps, tilting the scales to reduce the cost of a lower weight. "Part of this struggle takes parts back from aluminum, but most of it prevents more from going there than steel," said Kirk Reich, AK Steel's chief operating officer.

Research Center

The AK Steel research and innovation center in Middletown, Ohio is like a miniaturized version of a steel plant. Inside, employees walk through the different stages of steel production on a much smaller scale, allowing scientists and engineers to test different new alloys.

In the head office, away from all laboratories, the company has three different types of steel that can be used in cars: the traditional shape that is now in use, a very strong shape and the advanced version with high strength, with each piece becomes stronger, thinner and lighter.

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But the best is yet to come, according to Reich. "We are already looking," he said in an interview at the factory. "We are investigating alloys in the lab that will be better", five to fifteen years later.

More threats

Yet there are more threats than just aluminum in the elevator, according to Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing director at Kelley Blue Book. "Talk to the magnesium and carbon fiber guys," he said.

DeLorenzo does not see the comparison changing substantially in the future. It's more about what material best meets the needs of each component, he said.

"You will not see pure 100 per cent aluminum vehicles, and the entire steel unit is a thing of the past," DeLorenzo said. "It's not a" or-or "situation, it's a & # 39 ;, & # 39; situation, it just depends on where you're going to use the material. & # 39;