By now, almost everyone who made the typical New Year's
resolution has long since abandoned hope of getting lighter and
stronger. Not so for the North American steel industry, which
realized years ago that it must develop products that are
lighter, stronger and more adaptable to the changing needs of a
wide customer base.
Despite the global economic crisis, North American steel
producers are still devoting millions of dollars to research
into high-strength steels (HSS) as they attempt to regain
market share lost to lighter metals like aluminum while at the
same time making products stronger and safer for consumers.
"All of our divisions in Sweden and in the U.S. are pursuing
high-strength steels in various products," said David Britten,
president of SSAB North America Inc., Lisle, Ill., a unit of
Sweden's Svenskt Stal AB (SSAB). "We see smaller niche
opportunities in different market segments. We think there are
more opportunities for growth in these markets."
Automakers who find themselves under increasingly stringent
environmental regulations naturally are drawn to lighter,
high-strength steels because they are more environmentally
friendly. Less weight in the steel means higher payloads and
improved mileage, and thus fewer trips and less vehicle wear
and tear, among other environmental benefits.
"That's certainly part of it," Britten said. "People want to
go green, if you will. People want to take advantage of those
kinds of things. But there are financial benefits as well when
it comes to life cycle. These products are stronger and last
longer-they get nicked up, sure, but they don't have to be
replaced as often."
SSAB has a long line of high-strength steel products it
manufactures in Sweden and the United States, branded under
names such as Amox, Docol, Domex, Hardox, Toolox and Weldox,
each with different properties and chemistries that give them
hardness, flexibility or other traits suited to various
SSAB has added heat-treating operations to its plate mill in
Mobile, Ala., and is learning to make some of those grades. The
company is already experiencing success with customers who use
the steels in such varied applications as crane booms, refuse
trucks and some heavy equipment applications, Britten said.
"A lot of it is still in the developmental stage," he said.
"We're learning to do a few of these things and seeing where
they can be successful. A lot of customers are looking to do
more with high-strength steels because of the environmental and
financial benefits. It's an important niche and one where we
see a lot of opportunity."
Carpenter Technology Corp., Wyomissing, Pa., also sees
opportunity. The company has developed a new alloy known as
Carpenter AerMet 340, which it says demonstrates high hardness,
exceptional tensile strength, fracture toughness and yield
strength. It has shown superior ductility to alloys of similar
strength, the company said.
The new Carpenter grade, which can be used in a variety of
automotive, racing, aerospace and defense applications, is
already being used in applications in tubing, structural parts
and components, driveshafts, springs, connecting rods and crank
Use of more high-strength steels regularly is associated
with the U.S. automotive industry, where automakers and
government regulations are seeking vehicles that are more fuel
efficient but with improved crashworthiness.
"Advanced high-strength steels are in more and more demand,"
said Ron Hughes, manager of advanced engineering and product
development at Severstal North America Inc., Dearborn, Mich.
"The dual-phase steels and trip (transformation-induced
plasticity) steels that we are using now not only are being
employed to absorb energy in a crash, but to avoid
Hughes said that his company is the largest supplier of
boron steels in North America. "We have been working with these
kinds of steels for years," he said. "But in recent years,
customers have been seeking better formability. Dual-phase
steels were more formable than the high-strength low-alloy
steels, and now the trip steels are more formable than dual
phase. Now we're getting even more formability from heat
Environmentalists have applied pressure on the steel and
automotive industries for the production of more
environmentally friendly vehicles, Hughes said, but noted that
the need for improved safety goes "hand in hand" with that. The
U.S. government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,
for example, recently increased roof crush weight standards for
vehicles. Government regulations are now moving to requiring
roofs that can withstand 2½ times the vehicle weight, up
from 1½ times previously, while insurance company
standards are in the midst of increasing that requirement to
four times their weight in rollover tests.
Jody Shaw, automotive marketing manager at the Troy, Mich.,
automotive unit of U.S. Steel Corp., Pittsburgh, said that
although high-strength grades have been around for years,
application opportunities are increasing. New vehicles now
average about 150 pounds of high-strength steels apiece, up
from only around 70 pounds as recently as 2007. "As we get more
and more comfortable making these kinds of steels, we find more
and more applications for them," he said. "Low-alloy steels
have been very brittle. We are developing more high-strength
steels that are not as brittle and, therefore, stronger and
able to absorb energy better."
He believes that the development of high-strength steels,
combined with the new, stiffer regulations for both
crashworthiness and environmental friendliness, are opening the
door to the use of more high-strength steels in automotive
"I think you'll see it growing," he said. "We might be at
somewhere between 10 and 15 percent usage in a body structure
today. But I can see that with the way things are going it
won't be too long before high-strength steels (comprise) 40 to
50 percent of a vehicle's body structure."
The North American steel industry is committed to expanding
its work with automakers to develop more fuel-efficient
vehicles that also will reduce dependence on foreign oil, the
American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington, said. Research
and development in high-strength steels is part of the
Ronald Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications
for AISI's Steel Market Development Initiative, said the use of
advanced high-strength steels offers significant benefits in
cost, weight savings, improved safety, recyclability and
life-cycle emissions for future vehicles. Recent work with
automakers has demonstrated that high-strength steels available
today can reduce a vehicle's structural weight by 25
The amount of steel in today's new vehicles represents about
60 percent of its total weight, he said. Research funded by the
National Science Foundation and the U.S. Energy Department is
under way at the university level to develop future steels that
promise additional savings. The future grades should be
available for vehicles built around 2020, when the
35-mile-per-gallon standard is expected to be in effect.
In addition to mass savings, steel offers low total
emissions associated with manufacturing and driving vehicles,
Krupitzer added. This is measured by life-cycle assessment, an
established method of accounting for all the emissions
associated with products like automobiles. The relatively low
emissions and energy content of steels, and their high
recyclability compared with other automotive structural
materials, offer the cleanest environmental solutions to future
vehicles. SCOTT ROBERTSON