How steel is used in the automobile industry: past, present, and future
Key takeaways: Steel’s versatility and its producers’ quest for innovation continue to make the wonder alloy a quintessential automotive material.
Steel has come a long way since it was first mass produced in the mid-1850s, and it continues to maintain its utility as a material of choice in a wide range of industries.
As for the automotive industry, the wonder alloy is simply indispensable. So, what makes steel so essential to automakers? Almost 60-65% of a typical modern vehicle is made up of steel. The skeletal body, panels, doors and trunk closures consume the biggest chunk of it. The engine block, gears, the suspension, fuel tank, wheels, tyres, and steering and braking systems take up the remainder of the steel used in the making of a vehicle. In other words, an automobile is covered in steel from the hood to the bumper.
Steel has many qualities that have endeared itself to automobile manufactures for nearly a century now. An alloy of primarily iron and carbon, steel has earned an enviable reputation for its strength, durability, dependability, elasticity and ability to resist corrosion. This versatility coupled with a low production cost vis-à-vis other materials and immense scope for innovation makes steel the backbone of the automotive industry.
The sustainable angle
Steel’s sustainability is one of the primary reasons why it continues to be a material of choice now and in the future for the automotive industry. Two factors explain steel’s high sustainability – it is made up of iron, one of the most abundant elements on earth, and it is hundred per cent recyclable. In other words, steel once produced can be used forever. You can recycle it over and over again, and it will not lose its primary properties. This unique quality to retain its characteristic even after recycling makes steel the one of the only materials that can be recycled back into the same product.
Steel is today the most recycled industrial material in the world.
Innovation and technological advancements
The steel producers working for the automotive sector have to be on their toes when it comes to innovation to meet the challenges of the industry and demands of their consumers. This has resulted in constant innovation and technological upgradation.
Over the past few decades, the steel industry has been employing a range of innovative technologies and improving existing steel grades to reduce the environmental impact of steel production.
Besides, steel manufacturers are also finding ways to clean up their production process to meet increasingly stringent environmental protection regulations across the globe.
Steel companies have been investing heavily in research and development. This R&D spending has resulted in tapping the amazing power of steel. Consequently, today there are more than 3,500 grades of steel with many different physical and environmental properties and chemical compositions, all designed to meet the specific needs of end users.
Quest for greener, lighter, stronger steels
Of late, steel makers’ quest for greener and cleaner steel has resulted in the development and commercialisation of uniquely lightweight Advanced High-Strength Steels (AHSS). These are ultra strong but lighter steel products designed to meet the stringent safety regulations, reduce emissions and deliver performance – all at affordable costs.
These sophisticated products help automakers significantly decrease a vehicle’s structural weight and cut its total life cycle CO2 emissions more than any other automotive material.
The use of cutting-edge technologies has resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of energy used for steel production today. It has also cut down dust emissions in a big way.
Challenges and the future of steel
The urgency to make their vehicles lighter has made car manufacturers explore use of aluminium, magnesium steel alloys, carbon fiber and polymer composites. But all these materials, although lighter than ordinary steel, come at much higher costs. Besides, there are issues related to formability, recyclability, and multi-material complications in joining, painting and after-accident repairs.
Steel uses much lower amounts of energy in production and scores over other materials on recyclability. Because of its intrinsic properties, recycling steel is simpler and cheaper than recycling aluminium.
These factors make innovative steel products like AHSS one of the most appealing options for automakers. Most industry watchers agree that steel will continue to be a critical component in cars because of its strength, affordability and versatility.
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