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How the steel industry has survived

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Despite manufacturing slowdowns related to the global pandemic and despite a major truck manufacturer switching to an aluminum body, the steel industry is overcoming and adapting.

When the Ford F-Series, the top-selling truck in the U.S., went all-in on aluminum, it seemed other truck manufacturers might follow suit. But none of them did — although GM did replace some steel body panels starting in the 2019 model year for the Silverado and Sierra.

Ford remains the sole major manufacturer to build its trucks and SUVs with aluminum, so the big migration away from steel didn’t happen.

So, with a couple of major events that could have spelled disaster for the steel industry, we thought it might be interesting to dig into the issue and do a Q&A with John K. Catterall, vice president of the automotive program for the American Iron and Steel Institute.

How did Ford switching from steel to aluminum impact the industry?

This did serve as a wake-up call for the steel industry and led to it to further developing its material. Plus the steel industry began working more with automakers to understand how to execute lightweight steel bodies as well as share the benefits of staying with steel as the main material for future pickup truck bodies.

In what ways has the steel industry worked to make things lighter so manufacturers can keep up with stringent CAFE standards?

The key to lightweighting with steel is to increase the strength of the material so less of it can be used (thinner thicknesses) and still meet the ever-increasing crash requirements that are placed on vehicles. Thinner gauges can present a challenge for the stiffness of the structures, so creative design practices such as the use of bulkheads, stiffening beads, tailored blanked parts, good joint design, etc., have to be applied.

What does the future look like as far as steel and future EVs?

One of the most important differences of electric vehicles (EVs) versus internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is the battery pack. This is trending to be a flat package being positioned under the floor of a car or SUV or between the frame rails for a truck. This pack requires protection from crash events and impacts from road debris under the vehicles. Steel, being a very strong material, is ideal for serving these functions. This will probably lead to more steel per vehicle being used moving forward. Also because steel can package in a smaller area that other materials it can provide a packaging advantage and thus get more battery cells into the vehicle. In addition, a lot of the established automotive manufacturers have their hands full creating new propulsion technologies, control systems, potential autonomy technology to create EVs. If they are able to keep their structures stable (a.k.a. keep using steel), it allows them to apply their resources where they are most needed.

If steel is going to make a comeback, what has to happen?

We do not feel steel went away and thus does not have to make a comeback. Continuous innovation by the steel industry has kept it on the leading edge of efficiency and lightweighting. In addition, the mass equation for EVs may be changing over time. As battery efficiency and costs improve, the overall mass of the vehicle becomes less of an issue. EVs recover a lot of the braking energy, which is a big loss for an ICE vehicle. Also range will be less effected by the mass of the vehicle as battery efficiencies increases. Therefore, steel just has to keep doing what it’s doing but clearly articulate to everyone what the advantages of using steel are.

What kind of pivot is going on within the steel industry?

I wouldn’t say that it is a pivot, but the question of sustainability has become a big topic for everyone in the automotive industry, including its material suppliers. The U.S. steel industry already has the most sustainable steel versus other major steel producing countries, and steel as a material is much more sustainable than the alternatives. As sustainability of a particular material starts to become a selection criterion in vehicle engineering, steel should be in a very good position.

The bottom line on the steel industry

The auto and steel industries currently are relatively reliant upon each other. When one succeeds, the other will as well. But as today’s automakers strive for maximum fuel economy, the weight of steel can be counterproductive.

So, rather than get left behind, the steel industry appears to be adopting the motto: Adapt or die.  We’ll be curious to follow the steel industry on its journey and see what innovations come next.

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Jimmy Dinsmore

Jimmy is News Editor for PickupTruckTalk with an expertise in new vehicles. He is also a Ford Mustang historian having authored the book Mustang by Design (available on Amazon). His second book, about the history of Ford's F-Series truck comes out next year.

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