ULSAB: Auto Executives are on Hand as the Steel Industry Pulls The Sheet off on ULSAB


Auto Executives are On Hand as The Steel Industry Pulls The Sheet off on ULSAB

Traditionally, spotlights unveilings and VIP receptions in Detroit are hosted by automakers. Tonight, the steel industry turned the tables, inviting auto industry executives to an introduction of its own. When the sheets came off and the spotlights came on, the culmination of a four-year US$22 million international program was revealed: the UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB).

Developed by a consortium of 35 steel manufacturers from around the world, the ULSAB structure showcases a lightweight manufacturing option for the auto industry, with weight savings up to 36% against benchmarked vehicles. But the weight reduction doesn't come with a cost or a performance penalty. And steel executives feel very good about those results.

General Motors Corp. chairman John F. (Jack) Smith Jr. was on hand for the unveiling of the ULSAB structure.

"What the steel industry has done here is a very proactive response to a challenge that is out there. The industry basically has said 'look, there are a lot of exciting things that we can do.' We've used a lot of new technologies and a lot of new materials and now we clearly have a body that costs less," says Andrew G. Sharkey III, President and CEO of American Iron and Steel Institute.

Auto executives were equally enthusiastic. General Motors Corp. Chairman John F. (Jack) Smith Jr. says the steel industry has targeted a fundamental concern for auto manufacturers. "We've got to get weight out so obviously this is a great effort and we're pleased with it. If we can apply it to today's cars it will be a plus. I've spoken with the steel folks before. They know that they have to get the weight out. Aluminum has got a problem too. They have to get the cost out. The advantage in steel is price, so if they get the weight out, they become very competitive," says Smith.

Ultimately, the steel industry hopes ULSAB will go a long way in educating its automotive customers. "People always think about steel as in the steel developed 100 years ago," says Andrew Mahut, an Automotive Specialist with Stelco, Inc. "Some of the steels in this structure, they just aren't the same materials. That is why it is time to help educate our customers because they can benefit from these lessons. This is the first time we have all had a chance to get together and show our customers what they can really do if they utilize all of steel's properties." Mahut says the steel industry will continue to bring education to its automotive customers just like other companies in the auto business. "We are suppliers just like anyone else and the fact of the matter is that we have a responsibility to transfer this technology and transfer it fast."

Douglas Tyger, chairman of AAC's Communications Panel inspects the ULSAB structure with Chrysler Corp's Jim Carleton.

Although the ULSAB program focuses on weight reduction, cost and performance, other critical variables including recyclability and the environment are ongoing concerns for the automobile industry and other institutions including the federal government. "My responsibility is to ensure the use of recycled products," says Fran McPoland, Federal Environmental Executive for the Clinton Administration. "Here we have the best of both worlds. We are using a highly recyclable product as well as high recycled content in the product and thereby taking things out of the waste stream. It is a win-win situation for the environment and industry."

Automakers recognize this issue as well. According to Bill Ohr Ford Motor Co.'s manager of worldwide recycling planning, metals are a perennial favorite when it comes to recycling. "The steel auto body is highly recyclable, because the infrastructure is there. None of this (ULSAB body) is ever going to go to a landfill," says Ohr. Some automakers recently have rolled out vehicles made completely from recycled composites like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same material used to make plastic bottles. But Ohr is a little dubious about their potential for success. "Someone is going to have to drink an awful lot of soda pop in China for that to happen," he says.

Industry executives were   eager to get a closer look at the ULSAB structure once the sheets came off at the VIP review.

The auto industry's long-standing relationship with steel ultimately provides it with these types of corollary benefits, according to Robert Darnall, Chairman of American Iron and Steel Institute and Chairman of Inland Steel Industries. He says that steel industry has evolved with the auto industry over time, providing innovations and changes along the way. "Most of the steels we use today in vehicle production weren't here ten years ago. But steel still is a technology that all of our customers understand. We have crashworthiness, performance, recycling - a number of criteria as opposed to some of those other materials," says Darnall. "We have steel composites and advanced production techniques like hydroforming in ULSAB. But very little of this is beyond what exists today with our customers."

The ULSAB program has demonstrated that steel will continue to be a front-runner in light weight vehicle design. And steel executives believe their new technology also puts them in the slot for other cooperative programs, including the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). In his address, Darnall called for the supercar program to commission the design and production of a steel bodied, affordable midsize car weighing just 2,000 lbs.

"It's a is a hell of a challenge," says Chrysler Corp.'s Bernard I Robertson, vice president engineering technologies, and general manager of truck operations. But Robertson believes steel has a distinct advantage in its cost component, one of PNGV's biggest challenges. "Steel is a viable option for a couple of reasons. First, there is a lot of potential left in steel development," he says. "Of course PNGV is targeted at 80 mpg. That is meant to stretch technology. But I think we all recognize that if we achieve all of the other objectives, and we got to 72 mpg, we would be pretty happy. Steel clearly has got the greatest possibility of making the cost objective. So depending on how flexible ultimately the marketplace is on the other objectives, in exchange for cost parity, steel is a pretty attractive candidate."

"We've used a lot of new technologies and a lot of new materials and now we clearly have a body that costs less," says Andrew G. Sharkey III, President and CEO of American Iron and Steel Institute.

The ULSAB structure also has debuted in Australia at the Melbourne Auto Show and Geneva. Ed Opbroek Program Director for ULSAB says the structure received a great deal of attention overseas. "In Australia, ULSAB got a kind of special emphasis there, with the Minister of trade as the keynote speaker," says Opbroek. In Geneva, there were a number of top-echelon automotive guys from the automakers. I think every car company in Europe, including Ford and Opel AG, was represented there.