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Have You Met the New Steel?

    November 16, 2015

The auto industry has been around more than 100 years. Does this mean we view cars as old technology? No. The industry is old, but its products are very new, applying the latest innovations the 21st century technology has to offer. Same with steel —“old” (we prefer “historic”) industry, very new products.

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon and that is the only thing today’s materials have in common with the steels produced when Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford were building partnerships that endure today. These pioneers would be amazed at what we have done by harnessing the modeling and process control possible with today’s computing power.

Steel’s fundamental atomic structure — iron and carbon — readily accepts other elements to enhance properties. The processes we use to make steel readily allows us to get the most out of these elements and in reverse these elements can be removed during recycling, which is why one type of steel is easily recycled into another. Our industry recycled more than 60 million tons of steel last year, driving sustainability and saving raw materials for use by future generations [a blog topic for another day].

If you were to visit the control room of a steel plant today you would be surrounded by technology. All around you, the rapid and precise control of the specific steel being made occurs automatically, from its basic chemistry to critical process parameters such as temperature and cooling rate. So what kind of new materials do today’s processes and automation allow us to deliver? 

Advanced High-Strength Steel: Steel’s New Shine 

In the early 2000s, the steel industry began developing new automotive materials called advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) to help automakers meet increasingly stringent safety requirements. AHSS was two to three times stronger than steel in use at the time. It quickly became clear new fuel economy regulations would create new opportunities for steel in the need for mass reduction. We broadened and accelerated our efforts as higher strength and higher formability steels would enable significant mass reduction.  

In 2011, SMDI and WorldAutoSteel published the results of FutureSteelVehicle, a study introducing many new AHSS grades and the design and manufacturing techniques to take full advantage. One of SMDI’s mandates is the rapid adoption of new steels and, working closely with automakers, we addressed the differences in joining and stamping associated with AHSS. Many 2015 and 2016 vehicles employ AHSS providing evidence of our many successes.

Automotive Adoption 

We’ve had great success working with our automotive partners; especially on the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, which both use more than 70 percent AHSS to help them achieve the best fuel economy in their class. High-volume sedans and crossovers also use AHSS to cut weight and increase performance including: 

  • The 2016 Nissan Maxima’s redesigned platform extensively uses high-strength steel – including the first use of 1.2GPa high-strength steel in a Nissan sedan – to cut 82 pounds while increasing torsional rigidity by 25 percent over previous models.

  • The 2016 Chevrolet Malibu’s new E2XX platform paves the way for future GM vehicle redesigns by using high-strength steel to stretch the wheelbase almost four inches while simultaneously cutting almost 300 pounds from the previous year model.

  • The 2016 Kia Optima increased its use of high-strength steel by 150 percent over its previous model, making the widened and lengthened vehicle stiffer and more durable than ever before. More than half of the Optima’s new body is now high-strength steel.

  • The 2016 Hyundai Tucson crossover increased its use of AHSS in its chassis from 18 to more than 50 percent, while also making its body stiffer and lighter through increased use of high-strength steel. The Tucson’s enhanced crash safety measures also take advantage of multiple grades of high-strength steel throughout the body and structural components, assembled through sophisticated laser welding and stamping processes to achieve optimal stiffness-to-weight ratios.

  • The 2015 Ford Edge uses more AHSS for a solid body structure and better platform for suspension. The vehicle features a DP1000 hydroformed tube A-pillar and roof rail to improve body-in-white stiffness.

AHSS on the market today are achieving strengths four to six times stronger than the milder steels they replace. These materials offer automakers high value by allowing them to meet mass reduction targets for future vehicles without incurring the cost penalties associated with alternative materials. 

SMDI is working with automakers across North America on steel solutions to the mass reduction challenges of the next decade of vehicles.  Our research continues to explore the unique ability of steel to take on new and different properties any future applications may require, while always keeping in mind our customers’ goal of delivering vehicles that are safe, sustainable, affordable…and fun to drive.

For more information on SMDI, visit or follow @DriveUsingSteel on Twitter.

About the Author, Lawrence Kavanagh

Lawrence Kavanagh is President of The Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI). SMDI increases and defends the use of steel by developing innovative materials, applications and value-added solutions for customers in the automotive, construction and packaging markets.

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