STEEL VS AL: Performance said steering OEMs to aluminium

Aluminium has been a popular choice in recent years for automakers seeking to shed weight in their designs, but other factors are playing into original equipment manufacturers’ (OEMs’) decisions to add more aluminium into their platforms, suppliers told Metal Bulletin sister publication AMM.

Relaxed corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and improvements to vehicle engines have made it so material substitution is no longer mandatory in order to meet 2025 Café targets, suppliers said on the sidelines of the Aluminum Assn’s 2017 Spring Meeting in the US state of Georgia, which ran from March 27 to 29.

That said, aluminium’s presence in future vehicles in expected to grow thanks to performance enhancements that the material is seen providing over steel.

Suppliers have seen automotive customers become less worried about meeting weight-saving targets, but continue to increasingly substitute aluminium in such components as the battery box, a spokeswoman for Netherlands-based Constellium NV told AMM on March 28. Additionally, Constellium’s process of working with OEMs on new components from genesis to completion allows the automakers to simultaneously cut costs to produce the component in aluminium while making sure the maximum benefit is derived from the part.

According to market participants, the end result is a vehicle to which consumers have been reacting positively.

“As evidenced by success of the F-150, customers like the way the car and light trucks drive - its feel, and the safety and insurance performance have been good,” Subodh Das, ceo of USA-based consultancy Phinix LLC, told AMM on March 30. “Customers with check books [...] have the ultimate say.”

USA-based Ford Motor Co’s aluminium-intensive F-150 pickup truck has proven to be the catalyst for a trend that has allowed OEMs to save money by incorporating a smaller V6 engine into the vehicle. Combined with a turbo boost that the automaker calls “EcoBoost,” Ford is able to realise net savings on the vehicle, as a smaller engine combined with aluminium sheet is said to be cheaper than heavier - but cheaper - steel alternatives with a larger V8 engine.

A Ford spokesman did not immediately respond to AMM’s request for comment on how much money the company saves per vehicle due to the combination of aluminium sheet with a smaller engine.

Customers have embraced Ford’s F-Series trucks, with 820,799 units sold in 2016.

As such, aluminium suppliers are not worried about the effects of the purported relaxation of CAFE standards by US president Donald Trump’s administration. In an AMM poll that closed on March 31, some 43% of readers said that aluminium demand in automotive applications is “unlikely” to be reduced due to relaxed CAFE standards, with another 11% indicating it would not be reduced at all.

Meanwhile, about 45% of readers responded that relaxed CAFE rules would “definitely” or “probably” weaken aluminium demand.

Auto industry experts have said that it is unlikely the auto industry will change course on how it builds new vehicles despite the decision by US regulators to reopen the midterm review of CAFE standards, combined with the expectation that the Trump administration would relax standards. One analyst told AMM in mid-March that the industry is on a trajectory that is not going to reverse.

Likewise, an executive at Kaiser Aluminum Corp, based in the US state of California, said in February that even if CAFE standards are softened, and despite slower than anticipated vehicle platform transitions, aluminium extrusion sales are expected to be prosperous due to solid demand.

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