The Hole Expansion test (HET) quantifies the edge stretching capability of a sheet metal grade having a specific edge condition. Many variables affect hole expansion performance. By understanding the microstructural basis for this performance, steelmakers have been able to create new grades with better edge stretch capability.
Multiphase microstructures with large hardness differences between the phases, specifically islands of the very hard martensite surrounded by a softer ferrite matrix, may crack along the ferrite-martensite interface (Figure 1). The larger the size of the initiated damage site (due to edge shearing), the smaller the critical stress required for crack propagation.M-6 The microstructure and damage are key components of the Shear Affected Zone, or SAZ.
Figure 1: Features and mechanisms of damage initiation and propagation in Dual Phase steel.M-6
One metallurgical approach to improve sheared edge stretchability is targeting a homogeneous microstructure. Steel suppliers have engineered product offerings like complex phase steel, where extensive grain refinement (reducing the size of the ferrite and martensite grains) is achieved. Consequently, the size of the initial damage resulting from shearing is reduced, raising the critical stress for crack propagation to higher levels and reducing the likelihood for crack propagation. Additionally, reducing the difference in hardness between the soft ferrite phase and the hard martensite phase improves the hole expansion ratio. Changes in chemistry, hot rolling conditions and intercritical annealing temperatures are some of the methods used to achieve this. Such metallurgical trends can include a single phase of bainite or multiple phases including bainite and removal of large particles of martensite. This trend is shown in Figure 2, adapted from Citation M-11.
Figure 2: Hole Expansion as a Function of Strength and Microstructure. Adapted from Citation M-11.
An example of the impact of these modifications is shown in a paper published by C. Chiriac and D. HoydickC-10, where a 1 mm DP780 galvannealed steel was modified to produce a grade with improved hole expansion to achieve greater resistance to local formability failures such as edge fracture and shear fracture. These changes were made while retaining the same base metal chemistry and the same fraction of martensite in the structure, and resulted in similar tensile strength and total elongation but with a 50% increase in hole expansion (Table I and Figure 3). The key difference is a lower martensite hardness, and a smaller difference between the hardness of the martensite and ferrite. The modified DP grade has more homogeneous distribution of martensite with smaller ferrite and martensite grains (Figure 4).
Table I: Comparison of a conventional DP780 steel with a similar chemistry modified to improve hole expansion.C-10
Figure 3: Improvement in Hole Expansion improves with grade modifications and edge quality. DMR = drilled, milled, and reamed hole; EDL = Edge Ductility Loss index, the ratio of the hole expansion of the DMR hole to that of the punched hole.C-10
Figure 4: Comparison of the microstructure of a conventional DP780 steel (left) with a similar chemistry modified to improve hole expansion (right). Overall, there is the same fraction of martensite in both grades, but the modified chemistry has finer features.C-10
A presentation at a 2020 conferenceK-16 described a study which compared DP780 from six different global suppliers. Hole expansion tests were done on 1.4 mm to 1.5 mm mm thick samples prepared with either a sheared edge at 13% clearance, a sheared edge with 20% clearance, or a machined edge. Not surprisingly, the machined edge with minimal work hardening outperformed either of the sheared edge conditions. However, when considering only the machined edge samples, the hole expansion ratio ranged from below 30% to more than 70% (Figure 5). Presumably the only difference was the microstructural characteristics of the six DP780 products.
Figure 5: Variation in hole expansion performance from DP780 from 6 global suppliers.K-56
The microstructural differences that enhance local formability characteristics may be detrimental to global formability characteristics and vice versa. Conventional dual phase steels, with a soft ferrite matrix surrounding hard martensite islands, excel in applications where global formability is the limiting scenario. These steels have a low YS/TS ratio and high total elongation. However, the interface between the ferrite and martensite is the site of failures that limit the sheared edge extension of these grades. On the other end of the spectrum, fully martensitic grades are the highest strength steels available. These have a high YS/TS ratio, and low total elongation. Having only a single phase helps these grades achieve surprisingly high hole expansion values considering the strength, as seen in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Hole Expansion as a Function of Edge Quality and Microstructure. Adapted from Citation.H-7
Knowing that a higher volume fraction of martensite is needed to increase strength, combined with the awareness that minimizing the hardness differences between microstructural phases is needed to increase hole expansion (Figure 7), allows steelmakers to fine-tune their chemistry and mill processing to target specific balances of strength, tensile elongation, and cut edge expandability as measured in a tensile test.
Figure 7: Improved Hole Expansion by Reducing the Hardness Difference between Ferrite and Martensite.H-8
This expands the selection of grades from which manufacturers can choose. Traditional material selection and identification may have been based on tensile strength to satisfy structural requirements – DP980 is a dual phase steel with 980MPa minimum tensile strength. However, newly engineered grade options offer users an extra level of refinement depending on the functional needs of the part. Products can be specified as needing high tensile elongation, high hole expansion, or a balance of these two. In the example shown in Figure 8, note that all 3 grades have nearly identical tensile strength.
Figure 8: Engineered Microstructures Achieve Targeted Product Characteristics. (Data from Citations N-8 and F-5)
The influence of microstructure and the hardness differences between the phases is also seen in the hole expansion values of AHSS grades at strengths below 980 MPa. A study from 2016 shows the impact of a small amount of martensite on a ferrite-bainite microstructure.N-9 Both products compared had a microstructure of 80% ferrite. In one product, the remaining phase was only bainite, while the other had both martensite and bainite. The presence of just 8% martensite was sufficient to decrease the hole expansion capacity by 40%. (Figure 9).
Figure 9: High Hardness Differences in Microstructural Phases Decrease Edge Ductility at All Strength Levels. Adapted from Citation N-9.
Rolling direction may also influence edge fracture sensitivity on some multiphase AHSS grades. When testing a sample, edge fractures may occur first at the hole edge along the rolling direction, which corresponds to a tensile axis in the transverse direction. If the chosen grade exhibits this behavior, locate stretch flanges perpendicular to the rolling direction when possible during die and process development to increase resistance to edge fracture. If this is not practical, identify locations where inserting scallops/notches in the stretch flange will not negatively impact the part structure, fit or die processing.
During die development and die try-out, it is important to use the production-intent AHSS grade – not just one that has the same tensile strength. Blank orientation relative to the rolling direction in these trials must also be production-intent. Often the blank die is the last completed die, so prototype blanks may be prepared by laser, EDM, water jet or even by hand during tryout. These cutting methods will have different sheared edge extension, as measured by the hole expansion test, compared with the production-intent shearing. These differences may be sufficiently significant to prevent replication of production conditions in tryout.
The microstructure of Transformation Induced Plasticity (TRIP) steels contains a matrix of ferrite, with retained austenite, martensite, and bainite present in varying amounts. Production of TRIP steels typically requires the use of an isothermal hold at an intermediate temperature, which produces some bainite. Higher silicon and carbon content of TRIP steels result in significant volume fractions of retained austenite in the final microstructure. Figure 1 shows a schematic of TRIP steel microstructure, with Figure 2 showing a micrograph of an actual sample of TRIP steel. Figure 3 compares the engineering stress-strain curve for HSLA steel to a TRIP steel curve of similar yield strength.
Figure 1: Schematic of a TRIP steel microstructure showing a matrix of ferrite, with martensite, bainite and retained austenite as the additional phases.
Figure 2: Micrograph of Transformation Induced Plasticity steel.
Figure 3: A comparison of stress strain curves for mild steel, HSLA 350/450, and TRIP 350/600.K-1
During deformation, the dispersion of hard second phases in soft ferrite creates a high work hardening rate, as observed in the DP steels. However, in TRIP steels the retained austenite also progressively transforms to martensite with increasing strain, thereby increasing the work hardening rate at higher strain levels. This is known as the TRIP Effect. This is illustrated in Figure 4, which compares the engineering stress-strain behavior of HSLA, DP and TRIP steels of nominally the same yield strength. The TRIP steel has a lower initial work hardening rate than the DP steel, but the hardening rate persists at higher strains where work hardening of the DP begins to diminish. Additional engineering and true stress-strain curves for TRIP steel grades are shown in Figure 5.
Figure 4: TRIP 350/600 with a greater total elongation than DP 350/600 and HSLA 350/450. K-1
Figure 5: Engineering stress-strain (left graphic) and true stress-strain (right graphic) curves for a series of TRIP steel grades. Sheet thickness: TRIP 350/600 = 1.2mm, TRIP 450/700 = 1.5mm, TRIP 500/750 = 2.0mm, and Mild Steel = approx. 1.9mm. V-1
The strain hardening response of TRIP steels are substantially higher than for conventional HSS, resulting in significantly improved formability in stretch deformation. This response is indicated by a comparison of the n-value for the grades. The improvement in stretch formability is particularly useful when designers take advantage of the improved strain hardening response to design a part utilizing the as-formed mechanical properties. High n-value persists to higher strains in TRIP steels, providing a slight advantage over DP in the most severe stretch forming applications.
Austenite is a higher temperature phase and is not stable at room temperature under equilibrium conditions. Along with a specific thermal cycle, carbon content greater than that used in DP steels are needed in TRIP steels to promote room-temperature stabilization of austenite. Retained austenite is the term given to the austenitic phase that is stable at room temperature.
Higher contents of silicon and/or aluminum accelerate the ferrite/bainite formation. These elements assist in maintaining the necessary carbon content within the retained austenite. Suppressing the carbide precipitation during bainitic transformation appears to be crucial for TRIP steels. Silicon and aluminum are used to avoid carbide precipitation in the bainite region.
The carbon level of the TRIP alloy alters the strain level at which the TRIP Effect occurs. The strain level at which retained austenite begins to transform to martensite is controlled by adjusting the carbon content. At lower carbon levels, retained austenite begins to transform almost immediately upon deformation, increasing the work hardening rate and formability during the stamping process. At higher carbon contents, retained austenite is more stable and begins to transform only at strain levels beyond those produced during forming. At these carbon levels, retained austenite transforms to martensite during subsequent deformation, such as a crash event.
TRIP steels therefore can be engineered to provide excellent formability for manufacturing complex AHSS parts or to exhibit high strain hardening during crash deformation resulting in excellent crash energy absorption.
The additional alloying requirements of TRIP steels degrade their resistance spot-welding behavior. This can be addressed through weld cycle modification, such as the use of pulsating welding or dilution welding. Table 1 provides a list of current production grades of TRIP steels and example automotive applications:
Table 1: Current Production Grades Of TRIP Steels And Example Automotive Applications.
Some of the specifications describing uncoated cold rolled 1st Generation transformation induced plasticity (TRIP) steel are included below, with the grades typically listed in order of increasing minimum tensile strength and ductility. Different specifications may exist which describe hot or cold rolled, uncoated or coated, or steels of different strengths. Many automakers have proprietary specifications which encompass their requirements.
• ASTM A1088, with the terms Transformation induced plasticity (TRIP) steel Grades 690T/410Y and 780T/440YA-22
• JFS A2001, with the terms JSC590T and JSC780TJ-23
• EN 10338, with the terms HCT690T and HCT780TD-18
• VDA 239-100, with the terms CR400Y690T-TR and CR450Y780T-TRV-3
• SAE J2745, with terms Transformation Induced Plasticity (TRIP) 590T/380Y, 690T/400Y, and 780T/420YS-18
Transformation Induced Plasticity Effect
Austenite is not stable at room temperature under equilibrium conditions. An austenitic microstructure is retained at room temperature with the combined use of a specific chemistry and controlled thermal cycle. Deformation from sheet forming provides the necessary energy to allow the crystallographic structure to change from austenite to martensite. There is insufficient time and temperature for substantial diffusion of carbon to occur from carbon-rich austenite, which results in a high-carbon (high strength) martensite after transformation. Transformation to high strength martensite continues as deformation increases, as long as retained austenite is still available to be transformed.
Alloys capable of the TRIP effect are characterized by a high ductility – high strength combination. Such alloys include 1st Gen AHSS TRIP steels, as well as several 3rd Gen AHSS grades like TRIP-Assisted Bainitic Ferrite, Carbide Free Bainite, and Quench & Partition Steels.
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Complex Phase (CP) steels combine high strength with relatively high ductility. The microstructure of CP steels contains small amounts of martensite, retained austenite and pearlite within a ferrite/bainite matrix. A thermal cycle that retards recrystallization and promotes Titanium (Ti), Vanadium (V), or Niobium (Nb) carbo-nitrides precipitation results in extreme grain refinement. Minimizing retained austenite helps improve local formability, since forming steels with retained austenite induces the TRIP effect producing hard martensite.F-11
The balance of phases, and therefore the properties, results from the thermal cycle, which itself is a function of whether the product is hot rolled, cold rolled, or produced using a hot dip process. Citation P-18 indicates that galvannealed CP steels are characterized by low yield value and high ductility, whereas cold rolled CP steels are characterized by high yield value and good bendability. Typically these approaches require different melt chemistry, potentially resulting in different welding behavior.
CP steel microstructure is shown schematically in Figure 1, with the grain structure for hot rolled CP 800/1000 shown in Figure 2. The engineering stress-strain curves for mild steel, HSLA steel, and CP 1000/1200 steel are compared in Figure 3.
Figure 1: Schematic of a complex phase steel microstructure showing martensite and retained austenite in a ferrite-bainite matrix.
Figure 2: Micrograph of complex phase steel, HR800Y980T-CP.C-14
Figure 3: A comparison of stress strain curves for mild steel, HSLA 350/450, and CP 1000/1200.
DP and TRIP steels do not rely on precipitation hardening for strengthening, and as a result, the ferrite in these steels is relatively soft and ductile. In CP steels, carbo-nitride precipitation increases the ferrite strength. For this reason, CP steels show significantly higher yield strengths than DP steels at equal tensile strengths of 800 MPa and greater. Engineering and true stress-strain curves for CP steel grades are shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Engineering stress-strain (left graphic) and true stress-strain (right graphic) curves for a series of CP steel grades. Sheet thickness: CP650/850 = 1.5mm, CP 800/1000 = 0.8mm, CP 1000/1200 = 1.0mm, and Mild Steel = approx. 1.9mm.V-1
Examples of typical automotive applications benefitting from these high strength steels with good local formability include frame rails, frame rail and pillar reinforcements, transverse beams, fender and bumper beams, rocker panels, and tunnel stiffeners.
Some of the specifications describing uncoated cold rolled 1st Generation complex phase (CP) steel are included below, with the grades typically listed in order of increasing minimum tensile strength and ductility. Different specifications may exist which describe hot or cold rolled, uncoated or coated, or steels of different strengths. Many automakers have proprietary specifications which encompass their requirements.
- ASTM A1088, with the terms Complex phase (CP) steel Grades 600T/350Y, 780T/500Y, and 980T/700Y A-22
- EN 10338, with the terms HCT600C, HCT780C, and HCT980C D-18
- VDA239-100, with the terms CR570Y780T-CP, CR780Y980T-CP, and CR900Y1180T-CPV-3
Ferrite-Bainite (FB) steels are hot rolled steels typically found in applications requiring improved edge stretch capability, balancing strength and formability. The microstructure of FB steels contains the phases ferrite and bainite. High elongation is associated with ferrite, and bainite is associated with good edge stretchability. A fine grain size with a minimized hardness differences between the phases further enhance hole expansion performance. These microstructural characteristics also leads to improved fatigue strength relative to the tensile strength.
FB steels have a fine microstructure of ferrite and bainite. Strengthening comes from by both grain refinement and second phase hardening with bainite. Relatively low hardness differences within a fine microstructure promotes good Stretch Flangable (SF) and high hole expansion (HHE) performance, both measures of local formability. Figure 1 shows a schematic Ferrite-Bainite steel microstructure, with a micrograph of FB 400Y540T shown in Figure 2.
Figure 1: Schematic Ferrite-Bainite steel microstructure.
Figure 2: Micrograph of Ferrite-Bainite steel, HR400Y540T-FB.H-21
The primary advantage of FB steels over HSLA and DP steels is the improved stretchability of sheared edges as measured by the hole expansion test. Compared to HSLA steels with the same level of strength, FB steels also have a higher strain hardening exponent (n-value) and increased total elongation. Figure 3 compares FB 450/600 with HSLA 350/450 steel. Engineering and true stress-strain curves for FB steel grades are shown in Figure 4.
Figure 3: A comparison of stress strain curves for mild steel, HSLA 350/450, and FB 450/600.
Figure 4: Engineering stress-strain (left graphic) and true stress-strain (right graphic) curve for FB 450/600.T-10
Examples of typical automotive applications benefitting from these high strength highly formable grades include automotive chassis and suspension parts such as upper and lower control arms, longitudinal beams, seat cross members, rear twist beams, engine sub-frames and wheels.
Some of the specifications describing uncoated hot rolled 1st Generation ferrite-bainite (FB) steel are included below, with the grades typically listed in order of increasing minimum tensile strength and ductility. Different specifications may exist which describe uncoated or coated versions of these grades. Many automakers have proprietary specifications which encompass their requirements.
- EN 10338, with the terms HDT450F and HDT580F D-18
- VDA239-100, with the terms HR300Y450T-FB, HR440Y580T-FB, and HR600Y780T-FB V-3
- JFS A2001, with the terms JSC440A and JSC590AJ-23
Steel grades are engineered to achieve specific properties and characteristics by the manipulation of mill processing parameters to achieve a targeted balance of microstructural components. Among the tools available to the steelmaker are alloy composition, rolling and processing temperatures, and cooling profile.
If steel is slowly cooled, only two components exist at room temperature: ferrite (abbreviated by the Greek letter α) and cementite (iron carbide, Fe3C). Alternating layers of ferrite and cementite appear under a microscope in a pattern similar to Mother-of-Pearl, leading to the term pearlite.
A steel alloy having approximately 0.80% carbon will contain only pearlite in the microstructure. Lower carbon levels create an alloy that combines ferrite and pearlite. Ferrite-pearlite microstructures form the basis of many C-Mn steels and some of the initial HSLA steels. At a given strength level, pearlite limits sheet formability.
At carbon levels below 0.008% or 80 ppm, only ferrite exists. Ferrite is low strength but very ductile, and is the microstructural phase in ultra-low carbon steels.
Additional phases are formed when the cooling profile can be changed. Some modern annealing furnaces are capable of controlling the cooling rate as well as holding at specific temperatures. This ability is a key facilitator in the production of most Advanced High Strength Steels. In addition to ferrite and pearlite, microstructural phases of bainite, austenite, and martensite can be produced, depending on the chemistry and the thermal cycle profile including quench rate and hold temperature.
Bainite is a phase that is associated with enhanced sheared edge ductility. Accelerated cooling in the hot mill run out table allows for the production of Ferrite-Bainite steels.
Austenite is not stable at room temperature under equilibrium conditions. An austenitic microstructure is retained at room temperature with the use of a combined chemistry and controlled thermal cycle. Deforming retained austenite is responsible for the TRIP effect.
Martensite is a very high strength phase, but has limited toughness. Steels with both ferrite and martensite in the microstructure are known as dual phase steels. A structure of 100% martensite can be produced directly at those sheet mills having equipment capable of achieving a minimum critical cooling rate. The ductility of this product is not sufficiently high for most stamping operations. However, sheet martensite is well suited for properly designed roll forming applications.
Martensite is the microstructural component of processed Press Hardening Steels. An elevated temperature and a more formable microstructure exist at the time of complex forming of these grades. Rapid cooling while the part is under full press load converts the microstructure to the high strength martensite.