Ford's new F-150 triggers run on aluminum

Posted on February 14, 2014

Ford Motor Co.’s new aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup has triggered a stampede among automakers, sending many of the company’s competitors scrambling to ink deals with aluminum suppliers for the weight-saving metal.

“There’s isn’t an automotive manufacturer that makes vehicles in North America that we’re not talking to,” said Tom Boney, head of North American automotive business for Novelis Inc., the world’s largest supplier of the aluminum sheet used by automobile manufacturers. “Our customers will be making announcements fairly regularly over the next six years that will transform the automobile industry.”

Boney also is chairman of the Aluminum Transportation Group, part of the Aluminum Association, and he says “every boardroom” in the auto industry was forced to take a close look at Ford’s plans and adjust their own product plans accordingly.

That is because there is no simpler way to boost fuel economy than by reducing vehicle weight, and boosting mileage is something all automakers need to do.

“There’s a very simple reason for it: CAFE,” said General Motors Co. spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin, referring to the U.S. government’s tough new fuel economy standards. “Every gram you can take out of the vehicle, it helps with fuel efficiency.”

The question now is this: Is there enough aluminum to go around?

In the near term, the answer is no.

Ford has locked up much of the supply of automotive-grade aluminum sheet for its new version of the F-150, slated to go on sale late this year. The F-150 has been the bestselling vehicle in America for decades.

But Novelis and other aluminum manufacturers are adding capacity. A lot of it. And they say they will be ready when Ford’s competitors are.

“Ford is clearly the first mover, and that does give them some advantage,” Boney said, noting that automakers also need to secure new tooling for their stamping facilities before they can begin producing aluminum body panels like those used to make Ford’s pickup. They also need to redesign their vehicles.

“It probably takes 30 months to work through that,” he said, adding that Novelis can build a new aluminum plant in about the same amount of time. “We’re very well-positioned to be able to continue to invest in new capacity.”

So is rival Alcoa Inc. It is building two new plants in the United States and another in Saudi Arabia.

“These are investments we are making to meet that demand,” said Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery. “But most of that capacity is spoken for. The sooner you get to us, the better. I think (automakers) understand that.”

Aluminum already is the No. 2 material used in automobiles, and Lowery said North American manufacturers plan to double their use of the metal by 2025, when the federal government’s new fuel economy standards hit their peak of 54.5 miles per gallon.

Other automakers will be selling aluminum-bodied vehicles like Ford’s new F-150 well before then, Boney predicted. Today, automobile manufacturers only use about 6 percent of the sheet aluminum produced in the world, but Novelis expects that figure to skyrocket to more than 25 percent by the end of this decade.

While Boney declined to discuss specific vehicle programs, he did say more aluminum trucks are in the works.

“Our most robust conversations are with vehicles that are facing high demand and high CAFE requirements,” he said. Think pickups and full-size sport utility vehicles.

GM is among those considering an aluminum-bodied truck, according to a source familiar with the company’s plans.

GM’s Martin would not discuss his company’s future product plans, but said the automaker already is using aluminum in a variety of vehicles and has been for some time.

The frame of the Corvette has long been made of aluminum. So are the hoods and other chassis components of current-generation GM pickups, and all four doors on the Cadillac CTS.

“It’s part of our strategy to make vehicles lighter,” Martin said. “But aluminum is not a silver bullet.”

General Motors also is using more high-strength steel, which can be pressed thinner than conventional steel and still yield the same durability.

Chrysler Group LLC is using more aluminum in its vehicles, including for the hood and chassis components on the current Ram 1500 pickup. But like GM, the Auburn Hills automaker says aluminum is only part of the solution.

“We use a variety of materials for select applications to decrease weight, address durability tolerances and optimize packaging,” said Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa, though he did not deny that his company is talking to aluminum producers. “As a company, we speak with a number of potential suppliers to investigate the business case and then determine quality risks and benefits for each use.”

Ford will not be the first automaker to bring an aluminum-bodied vehicle to market.

Its former British luxury brands, Jaguar and Land Rover, are already selling them. But Boney says the real winners in this race will be consumers.

“The automobile industry in Detroit is at its best when innovation is occurring at a rapid pace,” he said. “That’s the period Ford has thrust us into in a big way.”