Jesse Snyder
Jesse Snyder
Opinion Page Editor

The scientist-juggler heart of car guys

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Blake Zuidema is a master juggler. Like the rest of us (I'll explain).

Juggler isn't on his ArcelorMittal business card. That reads "Director, Product Applications." His job: Make steel, specifically ArcelorMittal sheet and bar steel, fit the needs of auto designers and manufacturers.

For a product as complex as a passenger vehicle, no ingredient is more basic than steel. In its simplest form it's two elements: iron and a little carbon.

Maybe 30 cents a pound in bulk. Modern cars are still mostly steel, just as they have been for a century.

But Zuidema's job no longer is like providing flour to bakers or clay to potters. Life ain't that simple anymore.

In the 1950s, automotive steel came two ways, hot-rolled or cold-rolled. By the 1970s, some high-strength low-alloy steels arrived, either hot- or cold-rolled. By the 1980s, with more concern about corrosion resistance, automakers used perhaps 50 types of steel.

Today there are more than 200 steel alloys in the automaker toolbox -- such as dual-phase steel heat-treated for more strength and TRIP (or Transformation Induced Plasticity) steel that strengthens when bent into a shape. To reduce complexity, most automakers stick to a "palette" of 50 or 60 steels that they know best, Zuidema says.

He's a metallurgist by trade, so the chemistry and complex performance characteristics of all these steel alloys are the simplest part of Zuidema's job.

With federal rules requiring fuel economy fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year, carmakers will pay more to reduce vehicle weight. So he must satisfy customers.

And defend steel against inroads from aluminum. And carbon fiber.

It's not the old cheap-but-heavy steel and light-but-costly aluminum argument anymore. To win, Zuidema more often must find won't-cost-more solutions. As in, this boron ultrahigh strength steel is a more expensive material for a B-pillar, but it's lighter and costs less to make than using three mild-steel parts or going aluminum.

So let's recap. Zuidema doesn't just quote price per ton. He combines his encyclopedic knowledge of steel alloys and competitive material, manufacturing know-how, persuasion and sweat and finds ways to satisfy customers.

As I said, he's a juggler. And like any performance artist, he's keeping more balls in the air than ever and sweating the details to make it look simple. As we all do these days.

Look at Zuidema's job, and then your own. Is any part of his formula of expert knowledge, data sifting, analysis and hard work missing from what you do? If you're still working in the auto industry, you too juggle. A lot.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com.

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