Early 2001 looked bleak for the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Rising energy prices were stinging steel factories already hurting from years of battling low-priced imports. As a result, AISI's membership dues declined, and the steel industry consortium was forced to cut its advertising budget. And there appeared to be no help on the way from the Bush Admin. in the form of import quotas.

What a difference a few months can make.

With summer in full swing, AISI is roaring back. President Bush shocked free trade advocates by asking the International Trade Commission to investigate foreign dumping allegations. The ITC probe won't be completed until the end of this year at the earliest, but it already is helping steelmakers because the legislation, if approved, includes a retroactive clause that penalizes importers.

In addition to President Bush's request to investigate import pricing, new technologies also are helping the industry rebound. The latest project by AISI's UltraLight Steel Auto Closures (ULSAC) program successfully combines 0.02-in. (0.6 mm) dual-phase steel with sheet hydroforming to produce a door panel that weighs less than a stamped steel panel and providing better safety performance, including significantly improving intrusion protection. An additional 1.5 lbs. (0.7 kg) of mass savings is gained over the original ULSAC study, which produced frameless doors weighing 23.1 lbs. (10.47 kg) featuring stamped 0.03-in. (0.7 mm) thick outer panels made of bake hardenable 260 steel. The extra 1.5 lbs. (0.7 kg) savings increased the mass improvement from 42% to 46% vs. the average benchmarked frameless door.

ULSAC's newest report is significant for two reasons: hydroforming and affordability.

Hydroforming currently is one of the auto industry's trendiest technologies. Recent improvements in high-pressure hydraulic systems and computer controls have made hydroforming a feasible system for mass production. It involves using fluid pressure within a closed die to force the material into a certain shape. While engineers often have to add mass (thus more weight) to the center of panels made via conventional forming methods to improve stiffness, hydroforming distributes stress more evenly so that parts can be made thinner and stronger — reducing weight, scrap, tooling costs and parts per vehicle.

But until recently, the process has been used almost entirely in tubular parts. So ULSAC's application of sheet hydroforming for the door's outer panel is noteworthy. Also, ULSAC addresses hydro-forming's key drawbacks, slow cycle time and expensive equipment. According to Jody Shaw, an ULSAC participant and manager of technical marketing at U.S. Steel Corp., an economic analysis of the ULSAC sheet hydroformed door with dual-phase 600 steel shows that it would cost $70 to make. In contrast, a generic door costs about $69, and ULSAC's stamped outer panel door comes in at $66.50. The slight cost penalty for the ULSAC hydroformed outer panel door could be wiped out if volumes hit 225,000 units annually, Mr. Shaw says. Cycle time for sheet hydroforming the outer panel is predicted to be a snappy 30 seconds.

ULSAC successfully hydroformed door outers made of bake hardenable 210, bake hardenable 260 and dual-phase 600 in both 0.02-in. (0.6 mm) and 0.03-in (0.7 mm) thicknesses. The steel consortium went with the 0.02-in. (0.6 mm) dual-phase steel because of its better resistance to dents and oil-canning — that annoying in-and-out pop of a metal part.

Once again, Porsche Engineering Services Inc was contracted by AISI for ULSAC. The Troy, MI-based company also is working with AISI on the UltraLight Steel Auto Body-Advanced Vehicle Concept (ULSAB-AVC) project. After releasing individual studies on auto bodies, closures and suspensions, AISI is developing an entire virtual vehicle architecture aimed at offering cost-efficient steel solutions to mass reduction challenges. Though AISI insiders denied a few months ago that development programs would be delayed because of the budget cuts, ULSAB-AVC's release date has been pushed back from October until early 2002. AISI officials say it has nothing to do with the budget cuts. The consortium wants to give its representatives more time to adequately digest the $10 million project's results before reporting to automakers. AISI also fears if ULSAB-AVC is released in late 2001, it would get lost in the holiday shuffle and wouldn't regain the focus of automotive engineers until late January or early February anyway.