The use of steel as a reinforcement mechanism in the use of concrete in simple structures in a civil work is a fundamental element in these times of new buildings.
However, the next few years will determine if steel can maintain its competitive position with other materials that have broken into its markets. Although steel is still a much cheaper material than its rivals, the comparative quality and flexibility of aluminium, plastics and concrete in the manufacture of automobiles, railroad equipment and construction will require that the steel industry remodel its technological facilities or be exposed to lose their current predominance in these markets.
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Plastic rises as an alternative
With an increase in consumption of 490% from 1965 to 1980, plastic has emerged as the largest competitor of steel. “The tremendous increase in the use of this material,” said Ford-Europe’s vice president of supplies, Paut Hughs, at the fourteenth annual conference of the International Iron and Steel Institute (IISI), “can be attributed, at first, to its low cost, but then at its slight density, good ductility, fine finish and lack of corrosion ». Lenhard Holschuh, general secretary of the IISI, affirms that 7% of the annual production of steel in the world loses its market in favour of plastics, although it recovers an approximate percentage with new markets. This increase in the use of this material is so great that the steel industry has to work with plastic. It’s not so much about a competitive situation with this new material as it is about creating new markets with it and steel, “said Holschuh.
The introduction of plastics in the steel market is seen most clearly in the production of automobiles. Currently, 5.9% of the weight of a Ford automobile is plastic, and experiments continue to increase this percentage, as with the manufacture of gasoline tanks. Although these experiments have shown that it is possible that they are built from this material, and not steel, in the future, Holschuh believes that “the market for plastic in the car has reached a peak. For reasons of cost and security as well it will not be possible for the plastic to replace the steel in other parts of the car. A plastic gas tank can be made, but it is not safe at all ». For these reasons, Holschuh says that the competition between steel and plastics has stabilised quite a lot.
Aluminium has also begun to influence markets that were traditionally made of steel, such as the automobile sector, and again with the construction of passenger railways. Since the basic structure is 3, 5% lighter in weight than steel-copper, this material has been very successful with all means of transport. In this last decade, with the shortage of energy, steel, which is one hundred percent heavier, and only as hard as aluminium, has ceased to have the thrust of before. Thomas Graham, president of the American steel company Jones and Laughlin, pointed out that in the urgency of reducing the weight of the materials of the means of transport, a non-profitable product began to be used: aluminium. Now, says Graham, “the moment of recovery has sounded for steel. We have realised that there are much more efficient ways to make a car lighter than the rough formula used initially. ” Although the use of aluminium in cars and trains “has slowed down the overall growth of the steel industry in this decade, now steel is going to recover lost ground, because there is more shortage of aluminium and it is a more expensive matter,” Graham said.
But, also, aluminium presents a constant competition to the steel industry, and Mr. J. Bouley, director of materials of the SNCF (French railways), believes that only with a development of a steel of greater resistance can the industry create a lighter product and that can be purchased at better prices, hardness and quality against the competition of aluminium.
Concrete vs Steel
Another material that is being imposed on the steel market is concrete. Of the three materials that are replacing steel, only concrete is cheaper (approximately 556). The construction of bridges has changed from a purely steel structure, to a combination of this with concrete. This new concept has the advantages of producing a stronger structure, easy to build, in all its aspects, to clean and maintain. Therefore, the use of concrete has reduced by 65% the amount of steel used in bridges and other constructions. Concrete is the material that really presents a growing and dangerous competition for the steel industry, said Holschuh. Its characteristics have contributed to this rise, but Holschuh also believes “that the problems of having a concrete structure will cause steel constructions to be imposed again. Removing a concrete bridge is a big problem. With one of steel you can use the materials again, there is no waste and there is no problem where to put the debris left after the work is done”.
Currently, the steel industry is trying to improve technologically in order to achieve greater maintenance and greater strength of structures, say the experts. Partially, as a result of this strong competition, steel production has fallen by 14% this year, according to the calculations of the International Iron and Steel Institute.
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