Toyota Tacoma engineer wins Steel Institute award
DETROIT — Mike Sweers, chief engineer for the 2016 Toyota Tacoma pickup, said his team turned to steel to meet aggressive targets to improve body and frame rigidity and strength while reducing mass.
“We looked at the design; we looked at the materials, and together, with our different groups, we realized that the solution was clear,” he said. “High-strength steel and ultrastrength steel helped us to optimize our design and reduce the mass of our vehicle.”
Sweers spoke Tuesday at a media event sponsored by the Steel Market Development Institute during the Detroit auto show, where he received the Industry Innovator Award from the institute. Sweers is also the chief engineer for the Toyota Tundra program and vice president of engineering design–interior at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor.
The institute’s mission includes promoting the usage of steel by the auto industry. Its members, drawn from the steel industry, are eager to counter encroachments by other materials, including plastics, magnesium and especially aluminum, such as on the aluminum-bodied Ford F-series pickup.
In most cases, when automakers choose those other materials, it’s because they weigh less than steel and thus can improve a vehicle’s fuel economy.
The institute’s standard response, reiterated at Tuesday’s event, is that steel has other benefits that tip the scales in its favor, or that a careful mix of regular and high-strength steel can do the job while holding down weight.
Sweers said Toyota’s decision to go with steel benefited the company and the consumer.
“For Toyota, we could use our normal welding and assembly processes with this steel,” he said. “Thus, the investment could be held to a minimum. For our customers, it’s cost of ownership. With using steel, the repair costs and the insurance costs can be lower. And then finally, end of life of the vehicle itself. Recyclability with steel is proven. We know that when our vehicle is done that the steel will end up in new products.”
Jody Hall, vice president of the automotive market for the institute, echoed a similar take in terms of the environment, saying steel requires seven times less energy to produce than aluminum.
“Ironically, when alternative materials are used to help achieve fuel economy targets, materials production becomes an even higher percentage of total emissions, making material decisions during the design phase of a vehicle even more important,” she said.
Roger Newport, CEO of AK Steel and the institute’s chairman, pointed to the winners of the 2016 North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.
“The winners — the Volvo XC90 and the Honda Civic — are perfect examples of revolutionizing the lightweighting capabilities of today’s automobiles” by using advanced high-strength steels, Newport said.
The XC90, Newport said, has more than 40 percent ultra high-strength steel in its passenger compartment.
All of the finalists for the award had significant advanced high-strength steel applications, he added, in part because steel is getting better.
“Today, steel grades are as much as six times stronger than the steel that we made in cars and trucks over a decade ago and three to four times stronger than the best aluminum alloys out there today,” he said.