Choosing the Right Automotive Sheet Metal

06.05.2024

In automotive manufacturing, few elements are as indispensable as sheet metal. All procurement and supply chain professionals in the automotive marketspace understand the fundamental significance of quality sheet metal.

Navigating the many options available and understanding the different materials used in automotive fabrication can be challenging. Our goal is to provide you with the information and insights necessary to overcome these challenges.

Dive into our post to gain a deeper understanding of the benefits, applications, and fabrication techniques associated with automotive sheet metal. We’re here to support you in achieving optimal outcomes in your projects.

Benefits of Automotive Sheet Metal

Sheet metal is a preferred choice for a variety of automotive applications due to its multiple benefits. Whether you’re designing a new vehicle or modifying an existing one, the advantages of using sheet metal are significant:

  • High Precision: Techniques like laser cutting and precision blanking are used in automotive sheet metal fabrication to ensure consistent quality and a perfect fit, reducing the need for additional modifications during assembly.
  • Design Freedom: Automotive sheet metal supports complex designs, allowing you to create unique and appealing vehicle components. Its formability allows for the formation of curves and intricate shapes, ideal for achieving sleek and aerodynamic designs.
  • Material Variety: With materials like aluminum, stainless steel, and carbon flat roll, automotive sheet metal offers versatility in terms of strength, corrosion resistance, and weight enabling you to choose the material best suited for your application.
  • Automotive lightweighting: Known for its lightweight properties, automotive sheet metal enhances fuel efficiency and vehicle performance. Lightweight sheet metal components can reduce the overall weight of the vehicle without compromising strength or structural integrity.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: The efficiency of automotive sheet metal fabrication processes enables mass production with minimal waste, making it a cost-effective solution for manufacturers.

Applications of Automotive Sheet Metal

Automotive aluminum is integral to various applications within the vehicle structure. From Body-in-White (BIW) to frames, structural reinforcements, and closure panels: sheet metal is a vital material offering strength, durability, and aesthetic appeal.

A vehicle’s BIW and frame use sheet metal to provide the necessary structural integrity and rigidity to ensure passenger(s) safety. Advancements in manufacturing techniques have enabled the stamping of sheet metal into complex shapes and designs, resulting in aerodynamic and visually appealing car bodies.

automotive industry

Sheet metal is also used in the manufacturing of various structural components, including pillars, roof rails, reinforcements, and seat structures to enhance the vehicle’s stability. The high strength-to-weight ratio of sheet metal makes it an ideal choice for such applications, ensuring the overall safety and performance of the vehicle.

Sheet metal is the preferred material for closure panel applications. From door panels, fenders, roofs, liftgates, and hoods, sheet metal adds both functionality and aesthetic appeal to a vehicle’s design. Its versatility allows for customization options to achieve the desired look and feel.

Choosing the Right Automotive Metal Sheet

A design engineer has many different material options and choosing the right material can be based on varying levels of strength, corrosion resistance, and formability. Common choices include carbon steel, aluminum, and stainless steel. Steel offers exceptional strength and affordability, while aluminum metal sheets are lightweight and provides excellent corrosion resistance. Stainless steel is a popular choice for its durability and resistance to staining and rust.

An important factor is the gauge of the sheet metal. The gauge refers to the metal’s thickness, with lower gauge numbers indicating thicker sheets. The appropriate gauge will depend on the specific application and the required level of strength.

Typically, closure panels such as fenders and hoods are crafted from sheet metal, ranging from 18 to 22 gauge. Thinner gauges, such as 22 gauge, are usually reserved for areas needing additional formability but less structural support. Conversely, thicker gauges, like 18 gauge, are usually employed for more structurally demanding components.

The surface finish of the material also impacts both its aesthetics and functionality. Different surface finishes, such as mill finish, brushed, or painted provide varying levels of appearance and protection against corrosion.

Types of Sheet Metal Used in Vehicle Structures

Vehicle structures require various types of sheet metal to achieve the desired strength, durability, and aesthetic appeal. At Kloeckner Metals, we offer a wide range of high-quality sheet metal options specifically designed for automotive applications. Let’s explore some of the top choices:

  1. Aluminum: Aluminum sheet metal, known for its lightweight and corrosion-resistant properties is a popular choice for closure panels and automotive BIW components. Its low density offers a great material option for light-weighting initiatives.
  2. Stainless Steel: Stainless steel sheet metal, highly resistant to rust, is a durable option for automotive components exposed to moisture and corrosive environments. It provides strength and maintains its appearance even under extreme conditions.
  3. Cold Rolled Steel: Cold rolled steel sheet metal offers a wide range of material options of varying strength, allowing a designer to choose the best material for their application. It is commonly used in automotive fabrication for its strength, formability, and excellent weldability.
  4. Galvanized Sheet: Galvanized steel is coated with a protective layer of zinc to enhance its corrosion resistance. This type of sheet metal is commonly used in underbody vehicle structures and closure panels that require extra protection against rust and environmental elements.
  5. Dual-Phase Steel: Dual-phase steel sheet metal is known for its high strength and excellent crash resistance. It is commonly used in the manufacturing of automotive structural components, providing enhanced safety and structural integrity.
  6. Martensitic Steel: Martensitic steel is one of the advanced high strength material options used for vehicle crash components that need to absorb energy and protect the passenger(s).

Aluminum Alloys in Automotive Applications

Aluminum has become an essential material in the automotive industry due to its lightweight, durability, and corrosion resistance. Let’s delve deeper into what aluminum is used for and which aluminum alloys are used for various automotive applications.

Starting with 1100, this alloy is commonly used for heat insulators, heat shields, electrical conductors, interior/exterior trim, appliques, and HVAC components. Then we have 3003 and 3004, preferred for non-structural components, bracketry, brake/splash shields, and HVAC applications.

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Kloeckner Metals is a full-line automotive aluminum supplier and service center. Download our aluminum spec sheet to view what Kloeckner Metals routinely stocks.

Aluminum Spec Sheet

For applications that require lower strength but excellent corrosion resistance, formability, and weldability, 5052 and 5251 are the go-to alloys. These are used in interior/exterior bracketry and select body panel applications where pedestrian safety is a requirement.

5182 is the most common 5xxx alloy for automotive structural applications, offering high strength, excellent formability, and good galvanic corrosion resistance. Another popular alloy, 5754, is commonly used for structural reinforcement applications. It provides higher strength and good corrosion resistance.

When exposed surface quality and hemming performance are crucial, 6016 and 6022 or other low copper 6XXX variants, are preferred due to their adequate yield strength and dent resistance. This material is mainly used for exterior closure panels such as hoods and doors.

For body structure applications post-aging yield strength is essential, alloys like 6005, 6111, and 6451 are commonly used. Finally, 7075 is being investigated through the use of warm-forming to provide a high strength material in crash critical components such as A/B pillars and intrusion beams.

More reading: see our infographic guide to automotive aluminum sheet.

Stainless Steel Alloys in Automotive Sheet Metal

Numerous stainless steel grades find applications in automotive sheet metal, with 304 stainless steel sheet considered the most versatile. Made up of 18% chromium and 8% nickel, this grade demonstrates resilience in diverse atmospheric conditions. Renowned for its malleability and corrosion resistance, it enjoys widespread use in automotive components such as radiators, engine blocks, exhaust systems, and sheet metal fabrication.

A variant, 304L, features lower carbon content and is also prevalent due to its enhanced weldability, albeit with a slight compromise in strength.

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Kloeckner Metals is a full-line stainless steel sheet & plate supplier and service center. Download our stainless steel spec sheet today and check what Kloeckner Metals routinely stocks.

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In high-performance or harsh environment scenarios, 316 stainless steel emerges as a favored choice. Characterized by robustness, durability, and corrosion resistance, it finds suitability in exhaust systems, heat exchangers, grilles, ventilation systems, and engine covers.

Conversely, 409 stainless steel, a ferritic grade, offers a cost-effective solution coupled with commendable resistance to corrosion and high-temperature oxidation. It frequently sees application in automotive exhaust systems, encompassing mufflers, catalytic converters, and exhaust manifolds.

Automotive Sheet Metal

Dual-Phase and Martensitic Steel Alloys in Automotive Applications

The choice of steel plays a crucial role in determining the strength, durability, and safety of the vehicle structure. Dual-phase (DP) and martensitic steels are two popular options used extensively in the automotive industry. Let’s explore the applications these alloys are commonly used for.

Dual-phase steels are widely employed in various car components. DP590, for example, is commonly used for auto floor paneling, body sides, cowls, structural reinforcements, and fenders. Its high strength and formability make it an excellent choice for these applications.

Another dual-phase steel, DP790, is specifically designed for auto body structures that require high energy absorption. It finds its application in front and rear railing, as well as reinforcement structures. DP980, on the other hand, is commonly used in BIW applications, providing exceptional strength and stiffness to the vehicle’s frame.

For preventing intrusion into passenger compartments, DP1180 is the go-to dual-phase steel. Its excellent crashworthiness characteristics make it ideal for ensuring the safety of occupants.

When it comes to passenger safety cage components, such as rockers, A/B pillars, roof rails, and cross members, DP1270 is the preferred choice. Its high strength and resistance to deformation make it an integral part of the safety structure.

Moving on to martensitic steel, it finds its application in cross members, bumper reinforcement, and side intrusion beams. These components require high strength and impact resistance, which martensitic steel provides.

As the automotive industry continues to evolve, the usage of dual-phase and martensitic steels is expected to increase. These advanced steel alloys offer superior performance, enhanced safety, and lightweight construction, making them ideal for the cars of today and the future.

stainless steel finishes used in automotive sheet metal applications

Sheet Metal Cutting Techniques

In automotive sheet metal fabrication, selecting the right cutting technique is essential to ensure precision, efficiency, and high-quality results. At Kloeckner Metals, we offer a range of advanced cutting techniques that meet the demands of the automotive industry.

Laser cutting is a popular choice for automotive sheet metal fabrication. It utilizes a high-powered laser beam to cut through the metal with exceptional accuracy and speed. This technique is ideal for complex designs, maintaining a clean edge, and minimal heat distortion.

Plasma cutting is another efficient method we employ. It uses a jet of ionized gas to melt through the metal, resulting in precise and smooth cuts. Plasma cutting is especially suitable for thicker sheet metals and can handle a variety of materials.

For simpler cuts, shearing is a cost-effective option. It involves using a machine with two sharp blades to trim the sheet metal. Shearing is quick and produces clean edges, making it suitable for straight cuts.

Blanking is a technique used to produce flat parts with specific shapes. It involves cutting the desired shape from a larger sheet of metal. Our advanced blanking capabilities offer cut-to-length, sweeps, trapezoids, and/or configured blanks ensuring consistent results meeting the strictest automotive industry standards.

Multi-blanking is a versatile technique that enables the simultaneous cutting of multiple parts from a single sheet. This increases efficiency and reduces material waste, making it a cost-effective solution for high-volume production.

Slitting is a method used to cut wide coils into narrower strips. It is commonly employed in the automotive industry to produce strips of sheet metal with precise width tolerances. Our state-of-the-art stainless steel, carbon flat roll, and aluminum slitting equipment ensures consistent dimensions and smooth edges.

braner 72 aluminum slitting chicago university park

Sheet Metal Forming Techniques

Sheet metal bending involves deforming metal into a specific angle or shape using specialized equipment. This process includes various techniques, each offering distinct advantages and applications. The choice of bending method depends on factors such as the desired shape, material thickness, design complexity, and production needs. Understanding these techniques is crucial for manufacturers and fabricators to choose the most suitable method, ensuring efficient and precise production.

Stamping is used in the fabrication of automotive sheet metal components. It involves pressing or stamping the metal into a specific shape or form using a die and a press. This technique is highly efficient and allows for mass production of complex automotive parts with tight tolerances.

At Kloeckner Metals, we have extensive experience in both sheet metal bending and stamping techniques. Our team of experts is well-versed in working with various types of automotive sheet metal, including aluminum, steel, and stainless steel, to deliver superior results.

Sheet Metal Joining Techniques

In automotive sheet metal fabrication, selecting the right joining technology is crucial to ensure the structural integrity and durability of the final product. At Kloeckner Metals, we offer a range of high-quality joining methods that meet the stringent requirements of the automotive industry. First to discuss, welding:

Spot Welding

Spot welding is a commonly used technique for joining automotive sheet metal. This process involves the use of electric current to create a strong bond between two metal sheets. Spot welding is fast, cost-effective, and provides excellent strength.

MIG Welding

MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding is another popular choice for automotive fabrication. It uses a consumable wire electrode and an inert gas to create a strong and clean weld. MIG welding offers versatility and is suitable for a wide range of automotive sheet metal applications.

TIG Welding

TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding is known for its precision and control. It uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode and an inert gas to create a weld with superior strength and aesthetics. TIG welding is often preferred for critical automotive components where precision is paramount.

Riveting

Riveting is one of many mechanical joining technologies that involves the use of rivets to hold metal sheets together. It offers strong and reliable connections, particularly in applications where welding may not be feasible or desirable. Riveting is widely used in automotive assembly, providing excellent structural integrity.

Challenges in Selecting Sheet Metal Fabrication

Several challenges come with choosing the right material for a vehicle structure, such as ensuring the use of quality materials, adhering to manufacturing tolerances, and maintaining surface quality. Each of these aspects plays a crucial role in delivering top-notch automotive sheet metal products.

Maintaining precision is of utmost importance in automotive sheet metal fabrication. It allows the adherence to the required manufacturing tolerances of the final product. Ensuring that it meets the required specifications and avoids any potential issues during installation or assembly.

Ensuring the use of quality materials is another key challenge. Automotive sheet metal must be durable, corrosion-resistant, and capable of withstanding the demanding conditions of the automotive industry. Selecting the correct sheet metal for the application is critical to a comprehensive design.

When choosing automotive sheet metal fabrication, it is essential to partner with a reliable and experienced provider like Kloeckner Metals. Our commitment to quality, material selection and fabrication technologies sets us apart, making us the ideal choice for all your automotive sheet metal needs.

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Kloeckner Metals is a leader in automotive material processing. Kloeckner Metals combines a national footprint with the latest fabrication and processing technologies and most innovative customer service solutions.

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Natalie Spira
Natalie Spira is Kloeckner's Acquisition Marketing Manager. Previously, she was the Founder and CEO of Fraction Marketing, a marketing agency providing fractional support to scaling startups with a focus on acquisition marketing and demand generation. Natalie holds a MBA from Tel Aviv University with concentrations in entrepreneurship and marketing and a BA in English from UCLA.
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