Car Wars: The Steel Vs. Aluminum Debate Strikes Back

Spend Matters’ sister site MetalMiner just offered the latest round in its examination looking at the battle between steel and aluminum as the future metal of choice in the automotive industry. In many ways, this debate is a proxy for many alternative material/substitution discussions taking place across a range of manufacturing organizations and spend portfolios (you can also read our take in Part 1 of the discussion). Involving CSR, world trade (and trade policies) and a range of other items, the steel/aluminum debate covers a wide range of territory. The latest installment on MetalMiner centers on the debate of safety when it comes to steel and aluminum vehicles. Among other conclusions the article suggests, it’s clear that until “more vehicles on the road contain aluminum vs. steel, the relative crash worthiness of two like vehicles, one with more aluminum, the other with more steel, will provide the steel car with a safety advantage.”
In many ways, the debate between steel and aluminum is one that is already playing out across the manufacturing spectrum. Even when it comes to textiles, as commodity prices for cotton and other material inputs have risen, producers have been to explore design alternatives from the equivalent of alloys (combinations of different materials in a single woven garment) to complete substitutions (e.g., acrylics). Of course a decision to move to an alternative specification in any industry can come with a range of additional costs (e.g., retooling, testing/approvals, new supplier qualification, etc.), even factoring lower materials into account. Yet often, such an exercise can also help an organization begin to build greater resiliency into how it manages the supply component of its business based on overall business cycles and market volatility.

As for the automotive debate, nothing about the steel or aluminum discussion is as cut and dry as proponents on both sides of the supply equation make it out to be. For example, considering safety, while aluminum may have a “high strength to weight ratio,” “larger crush zones which serve to reduce forces on vehicle occupants in a crash,” and the ability to “collapse in a predicable manner in severe impacts,” a safety expert quoted in the piece suggests that he personally believes “steel has better energy management over aluminum” and “steel allows for better stamping and different welding techniques that aid in the energy management process.” As with all cases involving material substitution, procurement should play a front and center role in the overall evaluation of specifications and options, even before final engineering decisions are made.

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Obsessed with how companies manage, spend and save money, Jason writes about procurement, trade and supply chain issues @ Spend Matters. He has significant first hand experience developing and marketing technology and services products, has advised numerous companies on sourcing and related techniques as well as M&A pursuits.  In previous lives before tech, he was a management consultant and merchant banking analyst.