ULSAB: A Global Effort Focused on a Single Goal

Cooperation is tough enough when everyone's on the same team. But the steel industry's UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB) program brought nearly three dozen competing teams together for a common goal: deliver a lightweight manufacturing option to automotive industry's doorstep.

A consortium of 35 steel manufacturers from 18 countries joined up four years ago to produce the ULSAB structure - a lightweight steel auto body that shows significant weight savings against current benchmarks, without an increase in cost or a decline in performance. The project was created to showcase the industry's latest design and material applications for automotive production. And with the unveiling of the ULSAB structure, the steel consortium expects that its automotive customers will be impressed with the results. But in the end, the success of this global collaboration is almost as impressive as the ULSAB structure itself.

The project was created in response to a growing perception that steel was an outdated material. Research indicated designers and engineers felt steel was a good manufacturing option for the moment, but in the long run, it would yield to other trendy materials that were finding their way into automotive applications. The worldwide steel industry collectively agreed that dispelling this misconception was an immediate and critical priority.

"We all had a common goal, so that brought us together," says Bob Buck, chairman of the Automotive Applications Committee. "We wanted to show what we can do," he says.

ULSAB was simply stated, but far too complicated and expensive for any one steel company to put together. The job would require a level of cooperation that has rarely been duplicated in any industry. And in the steel business, where even simple coordination on minor issues often requires tremendous effort, ULSAB's scope was daunting.

The challenge didn't stop with the competitive nature of the steel industry. Consortium members also had to overcome cultural idiosyncrasies, language barriers, time-zones and vast distances to pull the project together. And the complexity of benchmarking and testing ULSAB was a constant challenge for all of the consortium members.

But the critical nature of the mission far outweighed any cultural or technical roadblocks. With an air of extreme cooperation, member companies pulled together, coordinating materials, technology and expertise.

Each quarter, member companies would meet at single host company, drawing people from all over the globe to work on the ULSAB project. During the interim, advanced communication technology provided a critical link within the consortium for collaboration.

The program itself was developed in two stages. First, Porsche Engineering Services, Inc. (PES) was contracted to develop benchmarks and performance targets for ULSAB, based on criteria from other mid-size sedans in production. This concept phase showed, on paper, that the consortium would be able to build a body structure that weighed significantly less than existing production vehicles, without sacrificing performance or cost.

The first phase generated a great deal of interest worldwide, but demonstrating the theories in the real world would be the only way for the Consortium to properly prove out its technology. The validation phase kicked off in the last part of 1995, and ULSAB production was underway.

Consortium members contributed materials, selected component manufacturers and generated US$22 million in funding to put the project through validation. The entire structure was assembled and tested at Porsche AG in Germany.

With results announced worldwide this month, automakers get their first real glimpse at the tremendous results generated from a truly global collaborative effort. ULSAB checks in at up to 36 percent lighter than vehicles benchmarked in the concept phase, with an 80 percent improvement in body torsion and a 52 percent improvement in bending.

And the automotive industry already is taking notice. "I am very impressed with the significant effort by the global steel companies to develop an optimized automotive body from steel. Their work shows a highly creative and innovative approach to a new steel body concept, while maintaining a strong sense of practicality and value consciousness," says David E. Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "I am particularly impressed by its performance characteristics such as structural stiffness. It is a highly commendable effort that should be of considerable value to the automotive manufacturers as they strive to develop cost-effective, high-performance body structures."

Four years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, the steel industry is openly delivering all of these patented processes directly to its automotive customers and the public. Now the global auto industry can begin to benefit from the remarkable worldwide cooperation that delivered ULSAB from the drawing board to a real world production demonstration.