A joint venture plant in Alabama, AM/NS Calvert, is preparing to produce the latest generation of ultra high-strength steel for the North American auto industry.
Ford's decision to make the body of its strong-selling F-150 pickup out of aluminum is pressing the steel industry to respond in the escalating struggle to cut vehicle weight.
The Calvert partners, Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal and Japan-based Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., are investing $80 million to improve the Calvert plant.
ThyssenKrupp sold the plant to the two partners in February 2014.
Shipments of ultra high-strength steel from Calvert to carmakers are expected to begin in early 2017.
High-strength steel is formed via precise heating and cooling techniques that determine its grain structure. Properly formed, it is lighter and stronger than traditional steel, often called mild steel. But it is typically more expensive than mild steel and more difficult to shape and cut.
High-strength steel enables automakers to achieve adequate strength with lightweight, thinner parts. Ultra high-strength steel has higher tensile strength, the ability to stretch without breaking.
"North American automotive customers increasingly need to achieve lighter and safer car bodies, and thus they have long requested [high-strength steel] to be manufactured in North America," Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal said in a statement.
John Packard, publisher of the "Steel Market Update," a newsletter for the steel industry, said: "The Calvert plant is the newest and latest technology that's available in the United States right now. It's a state-of-the-art plant. It should be able to do everything and anything automotive wants."
The plant will have the capability to roll steel not only stronger, "but thinner and lighter to compete with aluminum," he said.
ArcelorMittal and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal teamed up to buy the Calvert plant from ThyssenKrupp for $1.5 billion. ThyssenKrupp spent $5 billion to build the plant, which opened in 2010.