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The Future of Steel

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Courtesy Ronald P. KrupitzerWhile new materials have been making headlines, established materials such as steel have also experienced significant developments. 

Ronald Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications at the Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, recently discussed the future of the material.

 

Can you talk about recent advancements in steel? What sort of technologies are being developed?

As we come up with new kinds of steel, there’s also new manufacturing processes that go along with them. For example, in those early days, the steels were high-strength low alloy. We discovered that as we made these steels stronger, they were also less formable. We couldn’t make the same detailed, beautiful shapes with the high-strength steels. We started researching new approaches and new types of high-strength steels. The first group we came up with were dual-phase steels. This began the work on advanced high-strength steels.

Now we’re making steels stronger and adding formability, too. It makes us capable of making even stronger steels while using the same stamping operations and welding processes. We’ve doubled the strength of steels that are now being used in automobiles, all at the same investment the car companies have had over the years. That’s been very good and cost effective for the car companies. 

That’s still not the end. We’re realizing that the new CAFE standards have ramped up even higher expectations. If you take a 2011 vehicle and you look at the new CAFE standards, it’s truly doubling the fuel economy in a relatively short time. Now we’re pushing an even higher strength. We’ve added new kinds of advanced high-strength steels like transformation induced plasticity (TRIP) steels, and we’ve even gone into hot stamping. It’s possible to make very light steel parts that are super strong and help satisfy the weight reduction needs, while still making the structure safer than in previous models.

How does repairability play into this? 

I ran a stamping operation for Chrysler and part of my labor force was a repair team. If there was a dent or ding, their job was to repair it. They would be trained in how to best do that to perfectly illuminate the defects. Same thing with a body collision. There are standard techniques that people use to handle a metal repair. If you have collision damage, you either have to replace the part or you can rework it to make it acceptable in terms of its original appearance. 

As we change the materials, we also have to retrain the workforce in terms of repair methods. We’re working with the car companies and the people in the repair industry on letting them know how many new high-strength steels are going into cars and trucks and the acceptable repair procedures. We’re working with the repair community on all of these new steel options so they’ll know if they can cut and replace, bend and straighten, if there are sleeve methods. As we’ve changed the steels, we have to work directly with the car companies on the repair process and make sure the new methods and techniques are in all of the manuals.

What do you see as the future of steel?

I’m certain there’s a limit of some sort as to how “high strength” steel can go, but we haven’t reached it yet. The federal government has realized steel is a very promising new material, as well as an established material. What they’re doing is giving us a four-year grant of $6 million to work with universities, national labs and car companies to develop the science of making new kinds of steel. We’re peeling back the onion and going back into the very physics and atomic behavior of the elements that go into steel and we’re learning how to build them back up into full steel products again. We’re really going back to the basics of the atom and nanostructure of steel and trying to reassemble the microstructures that are used to define steels. 

What is the relationship between the OEMs and the steel industry?

You know that a vehicle is made of many materials. There’s certainly been a lot of news about aluminum becoming a good choice for weight reduction. And it is, but it’s also a very expensive choice. Right along with that are really good choices for weight reduction with high-strength steel. Our job in our business is to let people know they do have a choice. They don’t have to replace steel parts with other metals. They can re-engineer their steel parts with new steel and get a very lightweight solution at a much lower cost. 

We have had the benefit of directly partnering with car companies through our 28-year-old Auto/Steel Partnership, the members of which are Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. We work closely with all of the car companies. We understand their engineers are working with other materials industries, too. We’re in a very sporting industry and we’re in very good shape for this competition and we’re building even better steel solutions. But at the same time, we’re looking over our shoulder at what the competition is doing because we know we have to work even faster to prove that steel is the right choice for many of these design options.

Weight reduction is their number-one concern. Materials constitute the weight of the vehicle, so if they’re going to get efficiency out of a vehicle, there’s nothing good about a heavy vehicle. It takes more energy to stop with the brakes and accelerate with the engine. We can contribute if we can solve their structural needs. We’re working on that with them every day. 

It’s a fun and exciting time, even though we know there’s a lot of competition. We have conversations with car companies and we know that as soon as we leave the room, the next person to knock on their doors are the aluminum guys or the magnesium guys with another solution. The engineers are really looking at all options. You shouldn’t think because of all the news that’s out there about other materials that there isn’t keen interest in steel. We are doing more projects on light weighting with steel right now than in my whole career working in this industry, which spans 46 years. 

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