Metal industry rivals sharpen their swords

The battle between the aluminium and steel industries for domination of the future market for lightweight car bodies intensified this week. At the Geneva Motor Show on Wednesday a consortium of 32 steel companies unveiled the results of the four-year Ultra Light Steel Auto Body project, which aimed to reduce the weight of a car […]

The battle between the aluminium and steel industries for domination of the future market for lightweight car bodies intensified this week.

At the Geneva Motor Show on Wednesday a consortium of 32 steel companies unveiled the results of the four-year Ultra Light Steel Auto Body project, which aimed to reduce the weight of a car body by a quarter without affecting strength or stiffness.

But aluminium industry experts said an aluminium car body designed and built using proven techniques could be far lighter than a steel one using the latest technology.

The Ulsab project was prompted by ventures such as Ford’s Aluminium Intensive Vehicle project and Audi’s use of aluminium in the A8 luxury saloon. It set out to maximise weight savings available with steel by studying the whole process from design to fabrication of the body. Savings have been achieved through a combination of using high strength steel, and techniques such as hydroforming and tailor welded blanks.

‘There will certainly be a need for lighter cars to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution,’ said Roy Woodward, an aluminium industry consultant. ‘But aluminium could achieve considerably greater weight savings than steel by a factor of over 50%.’

The decision for car makers and their customers would then come down to whether the benefit in fuel and pollution savings throughout a vehicle’s life would offset the extra cost of aluminium, he said.

Woodward said some of the arguments against aluminium, such as the need to use unfamiliar manufacturing techniques or car repairers’ lack of experience and facilities, could equally apply to techniques such as hydroforming and materials such as high strength steel.

Tony Warren, Alcan aluminium product development manager, said that car makers are still inhibited from using aluminium for the whole body of a volume car. ‘It requires a long-term commitment a full model cycle is 10 years and the decision has to be integrated with the manufacturer’s whole model plan.’