By Jeff Sanford
Detroit, Michigan -- July 23, 2015 -- Collision repair professionals from around North America have gathered in Detroit. The booths are up. The cars have been rolled out on the convention floor. The drink tickets have been distributed. NACE 2015 is underway.
The Volt lounge at the base of the Renaissance Center is the social centre of the event. It's where industry heavy-hitters and power-players meet each evening to catch up over cocktails.
One group working hard to get their message out is Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI). Dr. Jody Hall, Vice President of Automotive Markets for SMDI, was made available for an interview as the event was just getting underway. The message she wanted to deliver could not be any more topical.
This year the collision repair industry is working through the appearance of the new 2015 Ford F-150, the first mainstream, high-volume vehicle to be produced with an aluminum body. It's a situation where nearly ever facility on the continent has had to consider a complex, key question: Invest in the specialized equipment to fix aluminum, or not? The “steel versus aluminum” debate is the question of the day.
Dr. Hall took some time out to provide some interesting and important context to the debate. As someone with a long history in the industry—she worked for General Motors for thirty years before taking up her current position—she understands the big trends in the industry. She is keen to reinforce the strong story about steel.
“With aluminum coming on strong we feel we have to get our message out,” says Dr. Hall, acknowledging the debate in the industry. “We've had to step up our game. The steel debate has become a public thing.”
As way of making the case for steel Dr. Hall laid out some important arguments. New types of high-strength steel are competitive with aluminum in terms of weight. These new types of steel are highly-formable in a way that aluminum is not. Aluminum may be trendy in terms of reducing weight, but there are still some things that can only be done with steel. “People are not always aware,” she said.
Dr. Hall went on to mention that the industry is close to the introduction of a new “third generation” type of steel. “These should be available in a couple years,” she says.
But Dr. Hall had a particular message on the metal that she wanted to deliver. The proponents of aluminum have made much noise about the environmental benefits of the metal. The argument is that a lighter-weight aluminum vehicle is a more “green” car. SMDI has some very strong arguments about why it is this is not necessarily correct.
Hall went on to point out that current reports about the “sustainability” of an aluminum car focus only on the car as it exists once it is manufactured. What are overlooked in this analysis are some important factors concerning the overall life-cycle of vehicle production, including the processing of the original materials. That is, thinking about the steel-versus-aluminum debate in terms of the complete life-cycle of all the materials and processes used in car manufacturing, finds steel is, arguably, the greener material
“Green has become a mission for so many. But we have a big story about sustainability we want to share,” says Dr. Hall. “OEMs focus on fuel economy. But they don't always think about the entire cycle involved in the production of these basic materials. This is something we want to get out.”
Aluminum has been described as “congealed electricity.” Manufacturing the metal uses vast amounts of electricity, much more than is involved in the production of steel. Today, vast amounts of coal are being burned around the world to produce aluminum. Taking the difference around energy use in production into consideration, steel is, actually, the greener material.
“Overall, the environmental footprint of steel is much smaller than aluminum. There is a huge difference. Looking at the total life-cycle, we want to make the point that steel is a little greener,” says Dr. Hall. “Often environmental sustainability is only considered from the point-of-view of use. But those ratings are front-end loaded and don't take into account the factors involved in the production of these materials. When you analyze the full life-cycle, steel is the green choice.”
This is also true for another up-and-coming exotic material, carbon fibre. Some European manufactures have begun using this material in high-end vehicles. But this is a material that can't be recycled. “I remember thinking when those cars were voted 'most green,' that this didn't make sense,” she says. “You can't recycle that stuff. When you tear one of those cars down, what do you do with the carbon fibre? It's a challenge for the OEMs. With steel you can just drop used metal back into the melt.”
From that perspective, steel has to be considered the greenest of the basic materials used in automotive construction. For those wondering about the future of materials, these are the sort of important questions being debated at this year's NACE. Check back regularly for more news from NACE.