In a rather anti-climactic moment, the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) in early March unveils a physical prototype of its UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB), basically proving out a digital prototype developed several years ago. It verifies what AISI has been chanting for the past four years: It is possible to build a steel automotive body that's dramatically lighter, stronger and less expensive than what's available today.

The ULSAB structure weighs 447 lbs. (203 kg) which is up to 36% lighter than nine midsize sedans benchmarked in the concept phase of the study. Torsion and bending tests of the structure show dramatic improvements over benchmark vehicles as well.

AISI also says the ULSAB will cost no more to build than typical auto body structures in its class. That's crucial because most alternative material technologies cost significantly more to deliver weight reductions. It also backpedals a bit from AISI claims that it could be built for $150 less, but AISI officials say that's because costs now are being compared to "year 2000" auto bodies, not current ones that in some cases feature old designs.

Now that they've proven themselves and put their money where their mouths are - $22 million to be exact - steelmakers are boldly talking about building a steel body that weighs a third less than the ULSAB for the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicles project to create a midsize sedan that gets 80 mpg (2.9L/100 km). They also are embarking on separate new programs to develop lighter-weight steel truck bodies, body panels and suspension components. If automakers don't want to build innovative lightweight steel-bodied vehicles, then the steel industry seems committed to doing it for them.

This highlights ULSAB's - and the steel industry's - most impressive accomplishment: the ability to form a united front. Astoundingly, 35 sheet steel producers from 18 countries were able to pool their money, expertise and resources to develop this impressive project. They overcame language and cultural differences and somehow managed to put competitive issues aside. In addition, 11 major U.S. and Canadian steelmakers formed a consortium in 1987 called the Auto/Steel Partnership with U.S. Big Three automakers to tackle everything from chopping tooling costs to making more dent-resistant steel.

Aluminum and plastics producers can't boast comparable efforts.

That's not to say plastic and aluminum are doing nothing. Individually, plastic resin producers and molders are working on hundreds of impressive projects with automakers, including Chrysler Corp.'s bevy of new plastic-bodied concepts such as the Composite Concept Vehicle (CCV). What's more, the American Plastics Council announced two major new initiatives at SAE '98 focused on the auto industry: It announced it was establishing an Automotive Center in Troy, MI, and an extensive communications program.

The Automotive Center, scheduled to open June 1, is designed to provide automotive OEMs, suppliers and system integrators with a focal point for automotive plastic application and concepts.

The communication program - the first-ever market-specific campaign developed on behalf of the plastics industry - uses radio and magazine advertising together with supporting information materials and APC's automotive site on the World Wide Web: www.plastics-car.com.

Likewise, aluminum producers have made impressive individual efforts developing all-aluminum bodies and components for cars such as the Audi A8 and General Motors Corp.'s EV1. But if plastics and aluminum producers can't follow steelmakers' lead in putting aside competitive differences and uniting to develop equivalents to the ULSAB and work with automakers on solving common problems like the Auto/Steel Partnership, they may be doomed to be "alternative" materials forever. o

I've seen more than my share of slow-motion crash test movies, but none more disturbing than the one currently being trotted out by Exatec LLC, the new joint venture company formed by Bayer Corp. and GE Plastics to develop plastic windows for cars and trucks.

Here's what happens: in a test paid for by Exatec's parent companies, a late-model minivan begins a typical high-speed rollover. As it gains momentum, an unbelted crash dummy the size of an adolescent child is ejected through one of the minivan's glass side windows on the high side and then falls in front of the van as it keeps rolling and is graphically crushed underneath. In a second test with a minivan outfitted with polycarbonate plastic side windows, no dummies are ejected.

In a crash that violent, wouldn't an unbelted child be killed anyway? Maybe, but the image still is so horrifying to the typical parent that it is bound to send a much more powerful message to vehicle engineers than the old arguments about plastic weighing 40% less than glass. As almost anyone who's taken a long road trip knows, even the most responsible parents usually end up allowing their children to sometimes take off their belts so they can lie down and sleep.

Glass producers have laminated products that also will prevent ejection, but Exatec officials say they are much heavier and more expensive than polycarbonate windows.

Meanwhile, Exatec President Douglas Nutter is moving right along. The 50/50 joint venture will invest about $40 million in research, technology and equipment during the next few years with the aim of developing the materials, abrasion-resistant coatings and process technologies required for mass acceptance of plastic vehicle windows.

To demonstrate the feasibility of polycarbonate glazing, the venture is completing a 100,000-sq.-ft. (9,300-sq.-m) development and engineering center in Wixom, MI, which will initially employ about 30 people and grow to about 75 in 2002, says Mr. Nutter.

Initial activity of the joint venture focuses on combining the technical, research and development efforts of Bayer and GE Plastics to develop a new polycarbonate window system with the abrasion resistance of glass. The JV also is developing the ability to manufacture a significant number of plastic windows for customer evaluation.

Exatec's goal is to have polycarbonate window systems on high-volume vehicles in seven or eight years. The first plastic window is expected to show up on a new sport/utility vehicle within the next few model years. o

Mazda Motor Corp. says it has developed the world's first low-pressure die casting process for aluminum matrix composites. Called the Air-Assisted Infiltration Process, it will be applied to pistons in Mazda's new direct-injection 2L-turbo diesel engine, which goes into production this month. The process increases productivity, reduces costs and simplifies manufacturing by reducing the pressure needed to infiltrate a pressurized mold. Mazda says the process is significantly less expensive than alternatives such as squeeze casting, and it will be used to make other parts that require strength and wear resistance.

Quebec Metal Powders Ltd. (QMP) is expanding powder production capacity by more than 40%. Fueled by increasing demand by North American as well as European and overseas customers, the expansion will add 70,000 tons (63,000 t) in atomized steel powder capacity, bringing total plant capacity to 218,000 tons (200,000 t). The multi-million-dollar investment is the latest in a series of expansions that have more than doubled QMP's capacity since the early 1990s.

New glass-fiber injection techniques used for Structural Reaction Injection Molding boost efficiencies and reduce labor for producing composite automotive interior components, says Andreas Rothacker, senior development specialist at ICI Polyurethanes. Mr. Rothacker, who presented a paper on the topic at SAE '98, says Low-Density SRIM processing generally involves the manual placement of a glass fiber mat into the production mold prior to injection of resin. In the long-fiber injection (LFI) process, the glass fibers are injected along with the resin mixture into the production mold. Good applications for this new process are door panels, package trays, seat pans/backs and sun visors. Mr. Rothacker studied the process using commercial equipment at the ICI Technical Center in Sterling Heights, MI.