With his Group Management Board responsibilities including both R&D and ArcelorMittal’s automotive business, Lou Schorsch talks about how the company has become a world leader to the automotive industry.
How has ArcelorMittal become so influential in automotive steel products? A lot of it has to do with our strength in technology, which starts with our research and development (R&D) division. In 2010, ArcelorMittal invested $320m in R&D. This figure places us among the world leaders in steel R&D – and automotive is a vital part of our overall product R&D portfolio. This is appropriate given our global position in the automotive sector as well as the sophisticated and rapidly evolving demands of our customers.
How does R&D work with automotive customers? We complement our research work in labs by locating R&D staff at plants and customer locations, not only in North America and Europe but also in Asia. This goes well beyond the standard practice of having on-site technical service reps. We have research staff involved in design work and material selection at many key customer locations. For example, ArcelorMittal is the first non-Japanese steel company to have a materials engineer on site at Toyota’s design centre in Japan.
How is automotive R&D working within the sustainability agenda? Our core value of sustainability runs throughout our applications. We are increasingly applying advanced high-strength steels developed for automotive uses to other areas, such as line pipe and metal processing. Our research into steels for electrical engineering targets improved efficiency and reduced core loss for electrical motors in vehicles.
Can you give any examples of product or process breakthroughs? Several years ago we introduced the proprietary product Usibor®, which is an excellent example of a breakthrough based on both product and process innovation. It achieves very high strength – 1,500 megapascal (MPa) – using hot-stamping technology. This product is now entering the global automotive mainstream, with volumes expected to exceed a million tonnes within the next five years.
Are there any other product breakthroughs on the horizon? We have long been the North American market leader in high-strength steels such as martensite. We are currently commercialising the next generation of this product, Martensite M1700. At 1,700 MPa, it allows strength requirements for bumpers to be met with much lower weight, so it provides the weight saving of aluminium with greater strength and at a lower cost. We are now working on Martensite 1900, with an investment of $35m at our continuous annealing facility in Indiana in order to make the next generation of much stronger products.
Are you worried that aluminium will overtake steel in automotive? I think the first time I heard someone say “aluminium is about to gobble up a big chunk of steel share” was probably in the mid-1980s. That’s not to say we are complacent, but so far we have held our own pretty well. There was a lot of penetration of aluminium in bumpers arena, but that’s a case where we have gained back share through our martensite products, which we are now planning to export from the US to Europe. Wheels are another example where we initially lost a lot of share to aluminium, but as an industry we’ve been able to make that more of a fight. Trench warfare’s not an incorrect term. But if you can offer a good design solution our advanced high-strength steels can provide the weight reduction the auto industry requires. Our recycling record is second to none, so we have a strong environmental story to tell. As auto manufacturers try to balance their key objectives of fuel efficiency, passenger safety, and cost, steel is in a very strong position to remain the leading automotive material.