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Clare Goldsberry

June 8, 2016

4 Min Read
Volatility in steel and aluminum bodes well for plastics in transportation market

Manufacturing is being shaken up by volatility in the metals markets, but for the transportation industry—automotive, aerospace and railway—this means taking a hard look at alternative materials. That bodes well for the plastics industry, which is becoming a leader in applications development for new materials to replace aluminum and steel.

Image courtesy khunaspix/

The latest bad news for the automotive industry came when the United States increased the import duty on Chinese-made cold-rolled flat steel in May by 522%. This is typically used in automotive manufacturing, shipping containers and construction. According to IHS SupplierBusiness, “the U.S. Department of Commerce also decided to impose an anti-dumping duty of 71% on Japanese made cold-rolled steel.”

These import duties came after the International Trade Commission (ITC) reaffirmed its “earlier findings that import of cold-rolled steel from China and Japan is indeed hurting steel manufacturers in the United States.” Steel manufacturers have asked the federal government to impose high import duties on cold-rolled steel imported from Brazil, India, South Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom on the same grounds, reported IHS SupplierBusiness. The ITC is expected to act by June 30.

With China as the world’s largest steel producer, the United States and Europe are claiming that “China is distorting the global steel market and undercutting them by dumping excess steel supply abroad.” China claims it is already adjusting its steel production in response to lower demand, said SupplierBusiness.

Still, the result could be much higher steel prices, which could impact the automotive industry significantly if it weren’t for the fact that the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards are putting the pressure on automakers to reduce vehicle weight to attain greater fuel mileage. That means the plastics industry is on the cutting edge of applications development using materials such as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and engineering thermoplastics in applications that have never been tried before.

At the Plastics-In-Motion conference last month in Charleston, SC, Solvay Specialty Polymers (Alpharetta, GA) introduced the Polimotor 2, the next-gen automotive engine that will weigh less and contain more polymer components than Polimotor 1. The goal, said Brian Baleno, Global Automotive Business Manager for Solvay, is to create a turbo-charged engine that weighs 40% less than a conventional engine—a target weight of 63 kg.

Polimotor 2’s objectives will be to introduce innovative new polymers and processing technologies, demonstrate lightweighting possibilities and showcase CO2 reduction. Materials used in the Polimotor 2 include Amodel (PPA), Ryton (PPS), Radel (PPSU), AvaSpire (PAEK), KetaSpire (PEEK), Torlon (PAI) and Tecnoflon (FKM). Baleno noted that metal is still needed in the engine’s combustion chamber. Solvay is also adding 3D-printed parts to the engine using a new material, Sinterline nylon 6.

Being tried as a possible alternative to steel in many transportation applications, aluminum is finding itself in the same boat. Pricing has trended down, the result of oversupply, but U.S. capacity is in trouble just as aluminum is starting to take off in the automotive industry (the Ford F-150 aluminum body pickup truck, for example). In April, the United Steelworkers (USW) filed a petition under Section 201 of U.S. trade law seeking to stem a flow of imported primary unwrought aluminum that, the USW says, has “seriously injured the American industry and threatens additional capacity losses.”

USW International President Leo W. Gerard, stated in a USW release, “Aluminum is vital to our national and economic security, and this case will help us retain and begin to rebuild domestic production of primary unwrought aluminum, which has reached critically low levels as a result of flooding imports. By the end of June, the industry will be operating at only 25% of 2011 production levels, and the total number of laid off workers will reach 6,500.” 

Gerard stated that aluminum producers across the United States are in trouble. “Over just five years, we’ve seen the number of smelters plummet,” he said. “In 2011 there were 14 smelters in the United States. Today there are only eight, only five of which are currently operating and one is expected to be idled at the end of June. Two of the five now operating are at 50% or less of capacity.

“We refuse to watch another domestic manufacturing sector suffer from failed trade policies,” Gerard added. “This is a vital product for our aircraft and weapon systems. It’s used in construction, manufacturing and in electrical transmission.”

Perhaps it will be the plastics industry that can save the day for the transportation industry, as polymer material advances and processing technologies create new means to convert metal (both steel and aluminum) components to plastic. Strong, lightweight compounds are already standing up to the testing demanded by the transportation industry, offering greater demand for these new materials. With advances in polymers technology, perhaps the transportation industry won’t have to be as concerned with steel or aluminum.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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