More MBS Coverage TRAVERSE CITY, MI – The Auto/Steel Partnership that started 17 years ago as a Big Three attempt to improve their competitiveness probably would be open today to membership from Asian and European auto makers.

"If it were brought up today, there would be a discussion about it," says Roger Heimbuch, a former General Motors Corp. engineer who now is executive director of the group. "Ten years ago, there would have been no question."

The partnership studies steel processing and develops new standards and design methods, then makes the information widely available to suppliers, which means the whole industry benefits from the research.

The partnership is half paid for by the Big Three and half by seven sheet steel companies.

Roger Heimbuch, executive director of Auto/Steel Partnership

"The key is how you use the information," Heimbuch says. "The Big Three wouldn't continue supporting this for 17 years if they didn't see that it was useful for them."

He says the auto makers get back 20 or 30 times their investment in research.

The partnership recently completed a front-end project in which it used high-strength steel to improve crash worthiness of a unibody car while cutting the mass of the parts they replaced by 23%.

A chassis project on a body-on-frame vehicle likely will be repeated soon with a passenger car, testing the use of high-strength steel on parts such as cradles for engines and rear ends, Heimbuch says.

The partnership is spending most of its efforts on high-strength steel, which can replace mild steel with thinner gauges, thus saving weight.

However, problems such as springback prohibit conventional steel from simply being replaced.

The partnership is developing ways to design parts and form them so high-strength steel can be used in more applications. Study areas include stamping and joining.

"We understand the material so well, we can design parts that are easily manufactured," he says.