Steeled for the job

With over half the components of today’s cars made of steel, automotive is one of British Steel’s key markets. More than 20% of the group’s business is with the world’s big car manufacturers and component suppliers. But this cannot be taken for granted. As the sector’s demands for quality, service and commitment have risen, and […]

With over half the components of today’s cars made of steel, automotive is one of British Steel’s key markets. More than 20% of the group’s business is with the world’s big car manufacturers and component suppliers.

But this cannot be taken for granted. As the sector’s demands for quality, service and commitment have risen, and car manufacturers seek lighter materials such as aluminium to improve fuel efficiency and meet tougher emissions laws, so British Steel has had to expand its support to the sector.

Its Automotive Engineering Group is playing a leading role in helping the company sustain and extend steel consumption by the car industry and build closer relationships with its automotive customers. The centre was set up two years ago in Coventry, and has recruited 25 engineers from the car industry.

A measure of its success has been its ability to persuade a consortium of companies building an electric car to make part of the chassis from steel, reversing their earlier decision to go for an all aluminium structure.

The Automotive Engineering Group works closely with British Steel’s Welsh technology centre at Port Talbot where a lot of research and development is carried out on strip steel in support of the automotive sector. ‘We provide a front end to their activities, advising on and optimising component design,’ says Professor Jon King, the centre’s research director.

King, a mechanical engineer, has 26 years’ experience in the automotive business. He joined Ford’s Dunton research and engineering centre after graduation then held senior positions with Nissan, Hawtal Whiting and several international automotive consultancy firms.

The centre’s goal, says King, is to draw on British Steel’s considerable resources in research, product development, applications engineering and processing and integrate them with demands and skills of its automotive customers at the design phase of new models. ‘We act as a bridge between our existing expertise and the engineering requirements of our automotive customers,’ he says.

The activities of the Coventry centre focus on helping customers make better use of existing steels, investigating new steels for new vehicle or component projects, working with customers on steel solutions for new vehicle programmes and researching new technologies and materials for use in the car industry.

The approach is two-way, says King. ‘We’re keen to do something that the automotive or component producer can’t do or can’t do well enough, and add value.’

The electric car project is a good illustration of the work the centre is doing and shows its ability to win business away from rival materials in automotive.

As with many of the centre’s projects, King is reluctant to name clients as it involves a new car programme due to be launched this October. (Our research discovered the client to be Norwegian company Pivco, which plans to launch the car in Europe at this year’s annual European Electric Vehicle Association Show.)

‘We advised on the design of steel body structure for the car. The client assumed they would use aluminium. This has tended to be an easy assumption to make for low-volume build,’ says King.

With access to British Steel’s range of high strength steels, whose potential was demonstrated in the Ultra Light Steel Auto Body project (ULSAB), the Automotive Engineering Group was able to persuade the client to use steel in part of the chassis. The ULSAB project involved 35 steel companies which together produced a steel car body 25% lighter than traditional steel bodies but had better performance without increased cost.

‘We’ve been able to show that a steel structure can be almost as weight effective but significantly lower cost both in investment and piece price terms than an equivalent aluminium structure,’ says King.

Pivco has confirmed that the chassis will now be built in a combination of the two materials (The Engineer 15 May).

The Automotive Engineering Group also oversaw design, structural analysis and various test programmes on the car chassis. The project proved that British Steel could provide a total integrated service to the car manufacturer from raw materials supply to finished component.

On the components side, the Automotive Engineering Group has been working with British Steel Engineering Steels which supplies steel bar for forging or machining into chassis and powertrain applications. ‘We’ve been working with them and one or two of their major customers to make the supply chain more efficient for the car manufacturer,’ says King.

The centre’s close dialogue with the Welsh technology centre and its big automotive customers enabled it to provide a more accurate overview of what the car manufacturer wants from a forged component than can be achieved by any single member of that supply chain.

So, for example, it has been able to reduce the weight of a suspension component by 30% and made it easier to manufacture. This has been achieved by optimising computerised analysis techniques, understanding more fully the purpose of the part from an automotive perspective and then talking through the manufacturing feasibility issues with the forger, smoothing out some of the problems it experiences.

The Automotive Engineering Group is also putting in a lot of effort into the development and promotion of tailor welded blanks, which British Steel believes will be an area of huge growth in the future. This is particularly true in the UK where car manufacturers have yet to fully exploit the technology.

In this area, the Automotive Engineering group is working closely with British Steel Distribution’s dedicated automotive steel processing centre at Wednesfield in the Midlands. It has installed laser welding technology and is supplying prototype volumes of laser welded blanks to a number of car manufacturers for future models.

Laser welded blanks are made from different grades of steel before pressing to provide strength where needed without the need for reinforcing panels. They provide cost, safety and weight benefits to car manufacturers and can be used in a variety of components from front rails to whole body side outers.

‘We support Wednesfield at the design or quotation stage if a manufacturer is investigating laser welded blanks,’ says King.

Laser welding technology is expensive, however about £4 £5m for a complete laser welding line. To make the investment worthwhile, car manufacturers will have to fully embrace the technology.

Together with the use of high strength steels, there is a significant investment efficiency opportunity for car manufacturers, says King. ‘But only if you make large-scale applications of these technologies rather than doing it on an incremental basis. You must look for every potential application to make big savings as well as significant quality improvements.’

According to King, British Steel is in ‘fairly deep level talks’ with seven or eight car manufacturers about using the technology and hopes to be able to make a significant announcement in this area by the end of this year.