Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – After a long lull, the automotive materials war is heating up again.

Spurred once again by soaring fuel prices, fuel-economy mandates and demands by auto makers to dramatically chop weight on future cars and trucks, alternative materials such as aluminum, magnesium, plastics and carbon fiber all are targeting new gains, mostly at the expense of steel.

And suppliers started laying out their sales pitches hard and heavy at the World Class Manufacturing session here. As Center for Automotive Research CEO Jay Baron aptly puts it, “The statements are all true, but debatable.”

Almost every major auto maker now is on a crash program to slash weight and boost fuel economy of upcoming cars and trucks. Producers of lightweight alternatives see this as a new opportunity to displace incumbent materials.

Ford Motor Co. publicly has stated it plans to chop 250-750 lbs. (114-340 kg) from future models as part of its midterm plan to improve fuel economy and cut emissions. Other auto makers are known to be looking for equally dramatic results.

Experts speaking at the Management Briefing Seminars say it is unlikely auto makers will be able to meet future corporate average fuel economy mandates unless they combine substantial weight reductions with the introduction of smaller engines and other powertrain technologies.

“We are entering a new world,” says Michael Bull, director-automotive technology, Novelis North American Inc., a major aluminum producer.

Steel was engaged in a knockdown-drag-out fight with lightweight challengers through much of the 1980s and 1990s, as auto makers experimented with plastic- and aluminum-intensive vehicles

These included General Motors Corp.’s plastic-bodied Saturn vehicles and aluminum-skinned sedans built by Audi AG and Ford Motor Co.’s Jaguar unit.

By the beginning of the decade, the landscape had changed. Fuel prices were low and auto makers were disillusioned with alternatives. Saturns were criticized for wide door-panel gaps necessary to accommodate plastic’s tendency to expand when warm, while the aluminum body panels proved expensive and difficult to stamp.

Since then, steel successfully has beat back challengers in high-volume, mainstream segments with advanced high-strength steel alloys that can be formed into strong, lighter-weight structures and panels, says Ron Krupitzer, vice president-Automotive Applications, American Iron and Steel Institute.

But the old battle lines are once again drawn here as proponents of aluminum, magnesium, plastics and carbon fiber all tout the benefits and throw darts at the competition.

Aluminum already owns most major engine, transmission and heat-exchanger applications, but Bull, of Novelis, says roofs on big cross/utility vehicles and SUVs are a ripe new application for the metal.

Aluminum roofs are an attractive use because their light weight lowers the center of gravity of tall vehicles, making it more difficult for them to roll over, Bull tells Ward’s.

Bigger vehicles already have aluminum hoods, but applications on smaller, lower-cost, high-volume vehicles, as well as deck lids and liftgates, are other opportunities.

George Racine, of the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, says plastics currently comprise 8%-12% of vehicle weight.

“We see that doubling by 2020,” he says, touting plastic’s ability to reduce weight and cost through parts consolidation. He also says numerous structural parts and body panels, such as deck lids, are well-suited for more plastic applications.

Lightweight plastic composite high-pressure fuel tanks also make alternative-fuel vehicles more viable, he adds, and there now are many more ways to recycle or reuse plastics. It’s even possible to break down plastic scrap and reclaim the petroleum feedstocks from which they are made.

Magnesium, which is one-third the weight of steel and only two-thirds the weight of aluminum, has a brighter future in automotive as well, says Steve Groat, managing director of both Alloy Technologies International Pty. Ltd. and T-Mag Pty. Ltd.

Usually considered expensive and difficult to weld, Groat says a new T-Mag process makes it easier to cost-effectively form magnesium components. Magnesium now is a much easier choice for structural components, wheels and transmission and engine components, he says.

“As we develop the process, we believe we can replace many kilos and further reduce the weight of the vehicle,” Groat says, noting the new T-Mag process could have an impact on vehicle suspensions and drivetrains similar to aluminum’s profound influence in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the steel industry’s Krupitzer says he finds it “refreshing to be challenged again, because I know we’re up to it.” He says this with the smile of a person with an ace or two up his sleeve. And indeed he does.

Steel remains the most recycled and reused automotive material of all, and steel manufacturing creates far less global warming gases than competitive materials, especially trendy materials such as carbon fiber.

Krupitzer is pushing for more standards that consider the environmental impact of materials over their lifecycle, from manufacturing to final use, an evaluation that makes steel look very good.

After all the materials wars of the past three or four decades, he says the steel content of a typical North American vehicle has not changed much. It still is about 60%.

Let the battle begin.

dwinter@wardsauto.com