1/1/1999 | 10 MINUTE READ

How the Pontiac Fiero Helped Save the North American Steel Industry

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Cars, competition, and material and process developments have all played a role on how the North American steel industry has worked with the auto industry. Here's a look back—and a glance forward...


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Although it might seem to be an absurdity that a single-two-seat automobile that was launched in 1983 as a 1984 model car could have saved the automotive business of the North American steel industry—at least the sheet part of it, as the Fiero had a steel frame upon which plastic panels were fastened—it really did play more than a minor role in helping bring steel producers and their automotive customers closer together.

Now, it wasn't that that the Fiero was the first vehicle with plastic panels; the Corvette, to name another car that was also in the GM line-up, had decades on the Fiero. But with the Fiero there were the issue of timing and competitive forces that were being arrayed against the steel manufacturers.

As Darryl C. Martin, who is now the senior director, Automotive Applications, American Iron & Steel Institute (Southfield, MI), recalls that time in the early `80s, the exchange provoked by the Fiero went something like this:

The steel guys poured all over the Fiero when it came out. Regardless of the volume (this was a niche vehicle from the start), regardless of the size (it is comparatively small by most measures), it represented competition. And they needed to know everything they could that would affect their livelihoods.

They noticed one thing almost immediately. (Remember: these are people with a trained eye, with visual acuity accumulated through spending plenty of time observing the uses to which their material are being applied—or not.) The colors were wrong. Things weren't matching up quite right. So they talked to the people at Pontiac.

They said, "Look at the difference in color between the fender and the hood."

And Martin remembers that the response was along the lines of: "Yes, but that's plastic."

Plastic! So the steel people countered, "You wouldn't let us get away with that lack of color consistency if it was steel."

And the response, again, was essentially, "Yes, but that's plastic."

Or, in effect, somehow the fact that the material wasn't steel absolved it of whatever deficiencies it had, even if those deficiencies were readily apparent (although we can imagine that the plastic vendor had to work very hard at generating improvements—that there was little slack in this regard).

Things did not seem to bode well for steelmakers at that point. What if other car manufacturers turned to that material?

Dr. David Cole is the director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, Transportation Research Institute, University of Michigan. Undoubtedly, the proximity of Ann Arbor to Detroit had more than a little to do with the ascendancy of OSAT to the top echelon of research organizations serving the auto industry. The fact that Cole—who is a knowledgeable automotive engineer in his own right—is the son of the late Edward N. Cole, who'd been president of General Motors (November 1, 1967 to September 30, 1974), helped propel OSAT forward.

When the frustrated steel people ("Yes, but that's plastic" ringing in their ears) met with Cole and voiced their concerns, Cole had an idea. He told them that if they could line up a group of steel executives, he'd arrange to have a group of auto executives assembled. This would permit the concerns of each side to be voiced.

The concerns that the steel people had at that time just weren't related to a knowing unacknowledgement of the Fiero's color flaws. There was a tendency on the part of some of the Big Three operations to use steel that wasn't being produced in North American steel mills. Instead, they were sourcing material from overseas, from countries including Japan and Germany.

Material replacement on what was clearly a niche car is one thing. But the replacement of a steel source was another thing altogether.

So a meeting was held. And among the things that the steel executives heard were:

"We can get better steel from overseas."

"They offer better uniformity."

And, importantly—perhaps most importantly—there was this comment from the auto executives:

"You don't know enough about us."

That remark really hit home. People may talk more nowadays about being "customer focused," but let's face it: There has never been a time when paying close attention to a customer wasn't important.

As a result of that remark, the Auto/Steel Partnership (A/SP) was born.

According to official verbiage on the subject:

"The Partnership was formed in 1987 to leverage the resources of the automotive and steel industries to pursue research projects leading to excellence in the application of sheet steels in the design and manufacture of vehicles. The Partnership has established project teams that examine issues related to steel properties including strength, dent resistance, surface texture and coating weights, as well as manufacturing methods including stamping, welding, and design improvements."

Initially, there were 10 steel producers represented (now there are 12) and the Big Three. To achieve a numeric parity in this partnership, the automakers were each asked to supply three people, representatives from Manufacturing, Purchasing, and Assembly.

It might be thought that one of the first undertakings of the A/SP would be related to something like "Steel vs. Plastics in Automotive Body Applications" or "An In-depth Analysis of Material Properties."

It wasn't like that at all. Instead, the first major deliverable was "The System."

"The System" is a study based on a root cause analysis performed by A/SP members during March through September 1988. It was determined that there were some systemic issues related to why things weren't changing in industry, why, for example, there was a resistance to reduce the number of presses in a stamping line (see below). So the Tooling Task Force of the A/SP was given the charter to determine how companies could change. What they did was set about to find out how companies that faced stiff competition—so stiff that it could have resulted in their ceasing to exist—managed to come back and even prosper. The firms they looked at were Harley-Davidson, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and the Rover Group.

The task force determined that there were six main requirements for a company to actually embrace and implement change:

  1. "A clearly understood reason to change; something worthwhile to strive for, together
  2. "A focus and direction for change that is clear and understood by everyone
  3. "A structure for change and effective change mechanisms to make [non-product] change happen, often with the assistance of outside agencies
  4. "A positive environment for change at all levels...
  5. "Training so that people are well prepared to do what is expected of them
  6. "Measurement systems that support the focus and direction; they measure the right things in the right way."

"The System" was printed and bound in a notebook that was distributed in May 1990. It provided an array of best practices that could be selected by people in the auto industry to help keep them from facing the edge of disaster. What's interesting about "The System" is that it is not only material-neutral (i.e., it doesn't indicate that steel is the (solution) but technology neutral, as well. It is, in fact, chapter and verse about how organizations can become successful by modifying their practices and methods—their systems—regardless of what they make.

Of course, this is not to say that there wasn't a concern with some of the more fundamental, or physical, issues. Jack M. Noel, current director of A/SP, and a long-time auto industry veteran, recalls, "When I was in the stamping plants, if something split they said it was the fault of the steel, so they'd pull the coil and send it back."

So in 1988 the Material Uniformity Project Team was organized with the mission to sample steels straight from stamping plants and to determine their attributes including sheet thickness, surface roughness, coating weight, and mechanical properties. It is still operating.

There is a rigorous sampling method employed, one that examines blanks taken from seven positions (including both ends and places in between) of a coil. Samples are taken by pickup truck (in the 10 years this program has been going, one pickup had 250,000 miles put on it and there are more than 40,000 miles on its successor) to Conam Inspection, Inc., in Gary, Indiana, an independent, accredited testing lab, for analysis.

One of the things that was discovered early on is that so far as the materials go, they were pretty darn uniform, in several instances better than the materials that were being sourced from overseas. The North American steel companies did listen to their customers, and so they committed to an on-going program to improve the physical and chemical properties of their material.

But there were still problems occurring in the plants. Which led to the conclusion that if the materials being stamped and formed weren't the problem, then the processes used to perform those operations needed some additional attention.

Noel notes that during the past several years tonnage monitors have been put on presses in an effort to help get things under control. "But tonnage monitors only read any given stroke," he says. In other words, the tonnage monitor is a recording device; it doesn't provide control. And process parameter control is critical to good part production because such things as binder pressure, lubrication (amount and type), and temperature (of both the tool and the material) all have measurable effects on output. The requirement, Noel explains, is to have better process control—real-time control—over all of these parameters.

Tonnage monitors, he believes, will increasingly give way to more sophisticated control which will include an array of sensing devices located in the press and tooling and the means by which adjustments can be made based on the sensed conditions in order to achieve good parts. DaimlerChrysler has such equipment in operation in Germany.

"Mild steel is much more forgiving in a forming process than is high-strength steel," says Darryl Martin. "The higher the strength, the tougher it is to control. In forming a part with high-strength steel you need more precision in the material and the process."

High-strength steel (HSS; 40 to 80 ksi) and ultrahigh strength steel (over 100 ksi) are finding increased use in the auto industry for a variety of applications and for a number of reasons. Among the applications are door, hood, and decklid outer panels; rails, brackets, reinforcements, and door and bumper beams. Among the reasons why they are finding application include the ability to reduce part thickness as compared with mild steel, which results in weight savings without sacrificing durability, dent resistance, and crashworthiness requirements.

One of the other initiatives that the A/SP has helped spearhead in many of the stamping facilities in North America is a decrease in the number of presses used to produce parts. Early on in the partnership a study was conducted by the University of Michigan into why Japanese auto manufacturers had lower stamping costs. The researchers discovered that (a) if a Japanese manufacturer needed, say, 200,000 pieces, then they'd make a die that could produce that many pieces and no more (as distinct from the domestic practice that created a die that would be capable of going and going and going—even if it wasn't necessary) and that (b) whereas the U.S. practice was to use 6 to 8 presses in a line, the Japanese would use 3 or 4.

HSS parts, Noel explains, have to be designed to overcome the residual stresses that are setup in the material during stamping. So, for example, the parts and tools need to be configured so that there is overbending, thereby overcoming the effects of springback. "You can't take a die for a part that's made in mild steel, insert HSS in the press, and expect to get a good part," he notes.

Back in the days of six or eight presses, accommodating this additional stretching would be a simpler thing. But those days are pretty much over. "HSS requires that the die process planner be more judicious in the selection of the process," Noel says. The A/SP is working on developing recommended practices that can lead to efficient part production with HSS.

Although it may not be too long chronologically since the days of the Fiero, so far as the development and implementation of steel goes, they've come a long way in this period of time. The future? Noel speculates there will be more hydroformed components (certainly tubular and possibly sheet), an increased use of tailored blanks, and even laser joining in assembly operations. While much of the competition for body panels seems to be coming from aluminum rather than from plastics, it is evident that the North American steel industry is vigorously defending its terrain on vehicles.