It sounds crazy at first. While the rest of the world's material suppliers are investing millions - and sometimes hundreds of millions - to increase their content in vehicles, steelmakers are doing the reverse: They've launched intensive efforts to develop new vehicle bodies that actually use less steel.
Insiders say it wasn't an easy sell at first. After decades of suffering, steelmakers are doing relatively well in the auto industry - especially in the U.S., where cars are continuing to get bigger and heavier, and steel-intensive pickups and sport/utilities have nearly doubled their share of the market since 1984.
But despite steady gains in the U. S., steelmakers can't help but notice lightweight competitors such as aluminum and sheet molding composite (SMC) chipping away at their dominance in body panels, and attacking body structures. The aluminum industry presented no less than 17 papers last month at the International Body Engineering Conference (IBEC) in Detroit.
So steelmakers are spending big money on at least being a moving target - just in case Americans someday do want lighter vehicles.
The most recent examples, also announced at, IBEC, are a new engineering study aimed at developing lighter-weight, lower-cost pickup and sport/utility vehicle bodies, and the addition of an attractive steel skin to the UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB), which already is in the second phase of a two-phase, $22-million development project. The new Light Truck Structure (LTS) study will be funded by the American Iron and Steel Institute, a non-profit trade association made up of 51 North American companies. The ULSAB is funded by AISI and an international consortium of 33 major sheet steel producers from 16 countries on five continents.
AISI introduced the ULSAB last year. It's an innovative steel auto body structure that's 24% lighter, 34% stronger and costs $150 less than the body-in-white (BIW) of a typical five-passenger sedan. It has been well received by automakers, and it sent the aluminum industry - which was expecting relatively easy entry into lightweight vehicle body structures - scrambling.
Porsche Engineering Services Inc., the U.S.-based unit of Porsche AG, pioneered the concept of "holistic design" with the ULSAB. It reduces weight and cost by optimizing the entire structure, rather than individual parts.
The same holistic approach will be used for the LTS, AISI officials say.
It has not yet been determined if the LTS will feature unit body or traditional body-on-frame truck construction. But no matter what architecture is chosen, the results will likely be impressive because the basic designs of most light truck body structures are about 20 years old and inefficient by most current engineering standards.
Further details on the LTS study are scarce because the program is just beginning, and AISI apparently still is negotiating a contract with Porsche Engineering. The process, no doubt, has been further slowed by changes in top management at the Troy, MI-based engineering services company. Nevertheless, AISI officials say they expect to have a computer-based engineering model of the LTS in about a year, following the same time frame as the ULSAB lightweight car body. It will be a compact truck platform, the size of aRanger or Chevy Blazer.
Meanwhile, ULSAB continues to evolve into a real live auto body. In Phase I, it was just a well-tested mathematical model of a new type of body-in-white. In Phase II, tooling is being developed and ULSAB will be fabricated into an actual steel BIW that can be mass produced. Adding exterior styling adds yet another dimension to the project.
"Exterior styling of the ULSAB has two big advantages," says Darryl Martin, director, of Automotive Applications at AISI. "First it gives ULSAB a look that is easily recognized. Second, creating styling now provides the opportunity to conduct further design studies for doors and other closures in the future."
Sometimes less does indeed turn out to be more.