STEEL VS AL: Automotive aluminium – the start of an era

Ford is making its 2015 model F-150 pickup truck not with a steel body, but with one made from aluminium - a move that has massive implications for the metal's usage.

Ford is making its 2015 model F-150 pickup truck not with a steel body, but with one made from aluminium – a move that has massive implications for the metal’s usage.

It was news that will have passed many people by, but for anyone with a stake in the aluminium industry it was a huge, market-changing, earth-shattering development: Ford is making its 2015 model F-150 pickup truck not with a steel body, but with one made from aluminium.

It is not the first aluminium-intensive vehicle to reach the market. The light-weighting benefits of aluminium have already been showcased in cars such as the Audi A8, with its aluminium frame, and the Jaguar XJ, built with an aluminium sheet-intensive monocoque body.

But the Audi A8 is a luxury sedan car of which only about 12,000 were sold last year in Europe and the USA. The XJ is another luxury vehicle, with less than 8,000 units sold in those markets last year.

The Ford F-150, on the other hand, has been the highest selling car of any kind in the US market for the past 32 years. Ford’s F-series pickup trucks sold more than 760,000 units in 2013. 

“The real revolutionary change that’s happening is that aluminium is now moving into high-volume cars,” Alcoa ceo Klaus Kleinfeld said in a recent interview at the Yale school of management. “It’s been an accepted, well-working solution for high-end cars for a while. But what we’re seeing now is a broad-based transformation from steel to aluminium [in the autos industry].”

Aluminium producers are now predicting that aluminium’s usage in autos will double in just a few years – and it’s not just the producers.

“Their numbers are accurate – aluminium sales will more than double in the auto industry over the next few years,” industry consultant Mark Bodner said. “Steel cannot catch up with the pace of substitution.”

But why now? Aluminium producers have been extolling its light-weight, ultra-recyclable, no-rust virtues for decades, and yet steel has maintained dominance in car manufacturing.

Kleinfeld pointed to regulations governing fuel consumption levels, as well as rising fuel prices changing attitudes towards more fuel-efficient cars within each class of vehicle.

Aluminium-intensive vehicles cost more to produce than steel cars, but are cheaper to run because of their greater fuel-efficiency, thanks to their lighter weight. As fuel prices rise, the benefits of aluminium come into sharper focus.

“More than 80% of consumers are now willing to pay up for a more fuel-efficient car,” Kleinfeld said. “[A consumer] wants, in the segment of large pickup trucks, the most fuel-efficient pickup truck. That’s what’s changing.”

But there is a third reason – the development of new aluminium technologies that raise the performance of the metal against steel in areas other than its main strength of light-weighting.

Innovation in alloys
The growth of pure downstream aluminium producers such as Novelis and Sapa has led to a spate of alloying innovation, as companies seek to position themselves as solution providers to their customers.

“These downstream companies diversified their suppliers, and research and development was focused on products, not processes, and customer service improved dramatically,” Constellium ceo Pierre Vareille said at a recent Metal Bulletin conference on aluminium alloys and their applications.

“All large, downstream companies, whether integrated or not, are now developing their own proprietary alloys,” Veraille added. “These developments are triggered by customer demand. Co-operation with customers is the key to developing new alloys.”

In the past, aluminium in cars has been mostly confined to cast parts and extrusions, and mainly toward the high end of the autos spectrum. The emergence of new aluminium sheet alloys is now translating to growth in car body panels too, and to lower-end cars.

And if the aluminium industry itself had had the chance to hand-pick the one vehicle to be the poster boy for the growth of the light metal in the autos market, the Ford F-150 may well have been it.

“If I was an aluminium producer, I would make sure I was all over this one, and I would make sure it was a success,” Kevin Moore, president of All Raw Materials Consulting, said at the recent annual meeting of the Aluminium Extruders Council in Miami. “If it does succeed, at this price range, there will be a lot of copycats.”

The average amount of aluminium per vehicle will jump to 550-650lb by 2025 from 364lb in 2012, Moore said, adding that aluminium sheet will see the lion’s share of that growth.

And all the major producers have been preparing for that. Norsk Hydro, AlcoaNovelis and Constellium are just some of the names that have expanded or are expanding their auto sheet and parts production, and most have plans to further increase capacity. 

But the demand comfortably beats the announced increases in supply. Alcoa announced an expansion at its Tennessee operations even before the completion of its $300 million expansion in Davenport, Iowa. All but a fraction of the future output of both expansions has already been committed to customers, an Alcoa spokesperson said.

Changing perceptions
There are obstacles still, but none that are not diminishing. Aluminium’s light weight has historically meant that people perceived it as substantially weaker than steel and thus less safe. But innovations, and the subsequent use of aluminium alloys in such demanding applications as space travel and the military is changing those perceptions.

“Space travel would be impossible without aluminium. The defence industry would not be where it is today were it not for high-impact blast shields [made of aluminium] that have saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives,” Kleinfeld said. “These are the arguments that consumers will see and are seeing.”

Now that Ford has brought aluminium intensity to its biggest selling car, other companies are following suit just as Moore predicted. General Motors, under pressure from Federal fuel efficiency standards as well as its competitor, has said it will produce an aluminium-bodied pickup truck by late 2018. 

As the major auto manufacturers move into high-volume aluminium cars and the aluminium producers increase their output of high-performing alloys to cater to them, 2014 will mark the beginning of a dramatic growth in aluminium usage in automotives that will certainly come at the expense of steel.

Jethro Wookey
Twitter: @jethrowookey_mb 

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