The next five years will see an explosion in the use of aluminium in car making, driven by the need for fuel efficiency and eco-friendliness, Jack Clark, chief technical officer, Novelis writes

Jack Clark, chief technical officer, Novelis

Aluminium is everywhere. Watch TV just for a while and you’ll see the metal featured in beer, soft drinks cans and electronics like smartphones.

But even more exciting are the cars. I have been in the aluminium industry for 30 years and can say with confidence and excitement that this is a time of tremendous growth in the use of aluminium in vehicles around the world.

A recent study by KPMG examined criteria people consider when purchasing a new car. The most important factor for 92% of consumers was fuel efficiency. This statistic is understandable considering today’s fuel prices – and also why it’s a huge concern of the car manufacturers.

Regulations intended to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in many parts of the world, from the USA and EU to China, Japan and South Korea, are driving car companies to adopt lightweight materials such as aluminium to reduce vehicle mass and thereby improve fuel economy. A 10% weight reduction is roughly equal to a 5-7% improvement in fuel economy.

25% compound annual growth rate
At Novelis, we are predicting about a 25% compound annual growth rate, globally, over the next five years in the use of aluminium in the Body in White (vehicle structure). We expect an even higher growth rate in North America and China, which has caused us to invest $300 million to install state-of-the-art automotive sheet finishing lines in New York and China.

Research firm Ducker Worldwide has also released studies in the past few years covering the growth in the use of aluminium in the automotive industry. Ducker’s report on the North America market concluded that the use of aluminium will grow from an average 325 lb per vehicle in 2008 to 550 lb by 2025, thereby saving 180-200 lb of direct curb weight and 78 lb of secondary curb weight. This growth will be driven largely by the use of aluminium sheet for vehicle structures and body panels.

The Ducker report on European carmaking found that the amount of aluminium used per car almost tripled between 1990 and 2012, increasing from an average of 50kg to 140kg. This amount is predicted to rise to 160kg by 2020, and could reach as much as 180kg if higher-volume vehicles follow the evolution recorded in the luxury and sportscar segments of the industry.

With such explosive demand, the aluminium industry has a fantastic opportunity to innovate. The decision to use more aluminium affects many other decisions made by the auto designers and engineers.

There are some thrilling examples of innovative uses of aluminium in vehicles that reflect the ingenuity of the R&D, engineering, and commercial minds in our industry.

The most recent showpiece is the all-new Range Rover, the first SUV to incorporate an all-aluminium body, which helps to reduce the total weight of the vehicle by an impressive 420kg. The vehicle structure is 39% lighter than the steel equivalent. The body contains two new aluminium alloys: a highly crash-absorbent alloy used in key structural areas and a high-strength, lightweight alloy for body panels.

Manufacturing the all-new Range Rover, the first SUV to incorporate an all-aluminium body, which helps to reduce the total weight of the vehicle by an impressive 420kg. The vehicle structure is 39% lighter than the steel equivalent

So far, the new Range Rover is a major hit with consumers and contributed to Jaguar Land Rover’s 32% increase in sales, reported in January.

Aluminium tailor-welded blanks
Another example is the aluminium tailor-welded blank used to produce the transmission tunnel of the new Mercedes SL. As an essential element of the body structure, the design and mechanical characteristics of the tunnel significantly determine the rigidity and the crash performance of the vehicle.

Its role is even more important in the case of a convertible. By using a tailor-welded blank, it is possible to closely adapt the local material thickness to the forces exerted on the component under various loading conditions. The result of this innovation is a safety element that weighs much less than it did previously. Thanks to its all-aluminium body, the new car weighs about 140kg less than its predecessor and provides improved fuel economy and driving performance.

A third example is a revolutionary new alloy for aluminium sheet that allows for laser welding without filler materials. The new alloy has enormous potential to be used as an alternative joining technology for body, floor or module construction.

The benefits include faster manufacturing, lower costs, greater design flexibility, and its potential to be used in a variety of automotive applications. I believe this technology is a true game changer for the industry.

Innovation also results from the need to be environmentally friendly.

Auto manufacturers have ambitious sustainability targets in addition to the desire to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They want to know they are sourcing the most sustainable products for today’s green consumer.

This means that the aluminium industry must, for example, learn how to increase the recycled content in automotive alloys to help car companies meet their own recycling objectives. Buying-back the offcuts from the automakers’ sheet metal stamping process is one key way of closing the recycling loop.

Aluminium is an amazing metal with so many properties that are conducive to the next generation of cars and trucks. As demand continues to rise, partnering with auto makers on new inventions, technologies and adaptations will solidify our industry’s role in this desirable market.

By Jack Clark

Jack Clark became aluminium rolled products producer Novelis's first chief technology officer in April 2012. Before joining Novelis in 2010, he worked for Alcoa in Europe and North America.

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