Rick Lazzari's reaction to a stainless steel car frame that's hundreds of pounds lighter and costs less to make than existing frames is the same as the Big Three's: It must be too good to be true.
"We keep trying to figure out: Is there something we're missing?" says Lazzari, who's in charge of developing new markets and products for Armco.The Pittsburgh-based stainless steel producer and a Detroit engineering firm are pitching the frame design to car makers and to other stainless producers. Their efforts are being funded by an undisclosed foreign automaker. By the end of the year, Armco and its partner, Autokinetics, hope to have approval from the car manufacturer to proceed with a prototype.
Armco Chairman James Will calls the frame "a potential technological breakthrough." If he's right, the 300-pound frame could dramatically increase stainless steel's position in the automotive industry. Currently, about 50 pounds of stainless go into the average car, most of it in catalytic converters and other exhaust system components, Lazzari says.
Just as important, the project indicates an aggressive effort to expand markets. "This kind of research is what the industry needs," says Charles Bradford, a New York-based steel analyst.
Armco and Autokinetics have tinkered with the idea for about 10 years. Early on, they designed a frame for a Corvette-sized sports car based on General Motors' interest in the idea, Lazzari says. The project stalled while Armco and the auto industry went through some lean years. But interest was revived two years ago by the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a federal government-industry effort to build an affordable, family car that gets 80 miles to the gallon.
Affordable isn't the first word that comes to mind when the car industry thinks of stainless steel.
The average cost of stainless steel in the Armco-Autokinetics frame is a little more than $1 a pound. The average cost of so-called carbon steel used in today's cars is about 37 cents. The price is related to what's in each type of steel. Stainless steel contains chromium, nickel and other alloys that make it more resistant to corrosion, while the carbon steel found in car doors, appliances, office furniture and a host of other products is made without the extras.
Lazzari says automotive industry officials can understand how a stainless frame is lighter than one made with carbon steel and how the strength of stainless will produce a smoother ride. But one question always comes up: "(Stainless) costs so much more than carbon steel. How can you tell me it would be less expensive?"
Armco and Autokinetics think they've solved the problem by designing a frame that uses less steel, is easier to manufacture, and produces less waste. There are additional savings because stainless steel is made corrosion-resistant while carbon steel must be coated with zinc.
"We more than make up for the higher cost per pound," says Autokinetics president Bruce Emmons. "We're expecting it to be less expensive than carbon steel."
Lazzari and Emmons presented the frame to stainless steel producers at a meeting in Madrid in May. They met with some of the producers again last week to discuss the possibility of sharing the costs of taking the concept from the drawing board to the showroom.