On entering an austere industrial complex north of Paris, visitors immediately see three shiny silver car bodies: The new Renault Espace, VW’s Golf VII and a Volvo XC90.
The frames are adorned with an assortment of doors, bumpers and other parts. Everything is made from steel of various strengths and compositions.
The complex, which belongs to steelmaker Arcelor Mittal, is one of several working to ensure the future of the industry in Europe. Their motto: Harder, lighter, cheaper. Steel must evolve if it is to survive.
Expertise developed for the car industry is now being applied to other areas: construction materials, trucks, buses and shipbuilding.
The competition from aluminum for cars and packaging is increasing just as composites like carbon fiber products become more important to the auto and aerospace industries.
The prospects for Arcelor, ThyssenKrupp, Tata and other steelmakers are far from good in Europe. Steel might be in demand around the world, but in regions where the economy is growing: China, India and once again in the United States. Some fear that Europe’s proud industry might no longer produce steel in 10 or 20 years.
Overcapacity, growing imports from Asia and stricter climate protection and energy conservation targets are making it hard for Europe’s steel mills. But there’s still optimism to be found.
“Steel as is young as ever,” said Andreas Goss, the head of ThyssenKrupp’s European steel division. “Steel’s developmental potential is nowhere near exhausted.”
In laboratories across the Continent, steelmakers are testing new alloys and processes to give new properties to 3,000-year-old steel. There are new recipes: the metal is milled warm and cold before its heated again and then rinsed cold. Such techniques change the metal’s properties and give it a new lease of life. “There are types of steel today that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” said Jean-Luc Thirion, the research director for Arcelor Mittal’s products for the auto and packaging industries.
Usibor 1500 is one such example. Developed in the laboratory north of Paris, it is coated with aluminum and silicon and heated to 900 degrees Celsius, before being cooled to 20 degrees Celsius in the press. This makes it extremely hard and resilient, for example, in a car accident.
But developing hard steels is one thing, making them useable for customers is another. Because the harder the steel the more difficult it is to shape. Carmakers, for example, have to upgrade their factories.
But such high-tensile steel is being used more frequently in cars. The transmission tunnel and doorframes of the new Golf VII are 23 kilograms lighter than the previous model. Whereas the Golf’s body is made up of 24 percent of hardened steel, the new Volvo XC90 contains more than 40 percent.
Germany’s ThyssenKrupp is also working on new solutions to keep steel competitive. The Ruhr Valley company develops between 25 and 30 new steel products each year in its labs in Duisburg and Dortmund, said Oliver Hoffmann, head of the applied technologies unit of ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe. “Three-quarters of around 2,000 types of steel didn’t exist 20 years ago,” he said.
A research project by Arcelor Mittal shows just how far a car body can be trimmed down: Engineers have build a high-tensile steel frame for a hybrid model, reducing the weight from 319 to just 55 kilos.
“We’ll never match the weight of aluminum,” said Mr. Thirion. “But we’re getting close.”
The resourcefulness of engineers knows few bounds.
“We have around 100 to 150 different ideas how to make a car body lighter,” said Sander Heinhuis, a marketing executive for Tata Steel.
Video: Lou Schorsch, chief executive of ArcelorMittal Americas, talks about steel and the car industry.
The benefits for carmakers is clear: Each new model saves them between €10 ($11) and €100 per vehicle.
New solutions are desperately needed. On average, each car requires one ton of steel. Europe’s steel mills supply roughly 14 million tons each year to carmakers. But if that figure is reduced considerably, the industry would suffer greatly.
But both aluminum and steel producers are being constantly pushed by the automotive industry to seek new ways to reduce the weight of their vehicles. After all, a reduction of 100 kilos cuts on average CO2 emissions by around nine grams per kilometer. That’s crucial for carmakers being forced to abide by stricter E.U. climate protection regulations.
That’s why luxury carmakers are increasingly switching to aluminum, which weighs just a third of what steel does, for large parts like hoods or roofs. The new Jaguar XE is 75 percent aluminum, but that’s not yet realistic for mass producers.
In order to avoid losing any more market share, however, steelmakers are getting creative. Besides new types of steel, they are also combining it with other materials, such as carbon fiber material. These hybrid products can offer increased strength at a lower weight.
ThyssenKrupp, for example, has a steel sandwich with a thin layer of plastic between two sheets that can be used for car hoods and roofs and is competitive with aluminum. Some 50 percent lighter than pure steel, it’s also several times more expensive. However, it still only costs half of what aluminum would.
Expertise developed for the car industry is now being applied to other areas: construction materials, trucks, buses and shipbuilding. Wherever steel is used, it can be improved upon. High-tensile steel is even making it possible to build higher skyscrapers.
There are, however, limits to what steel can do – though it’s less the laws of physics than the expectations of consumers holding back steelmakers.
“Car doors have become so light that drivers can’t close them with a push,” said Mr. Thirion, explaining that the weight wasn’t enough to overcome wind resistance. They also don’t offer that satisfying solid sound when closing.
Mr. Thirion smiled and shrugged at the cost of progress. The only solution? “We’d have to add more mass – and with it more weight,” he said.
Martin Wocher covers the steel industry for Handelsblatt. To contact him: [email protected]