Taking turns: Metals will share the auto supply chain

Mar 31, 2012 | 07:00 PM | Gregory DL Morris

Tags  auto metals, auto manufacturing, high strength steel, cast aluminum, Alcoa, Novelis, ArcelorMittal SA, Severstal Gregory DL Morris

As a romantic image, it’s hard to beat the all-steel car vs. the all-aluminum car, side by side, engines roaring, poised to race for the future of automobile manufacturing. But look under the hoods, and you’ll find both of those roaring engine blocks are made of cast aluminum. That is the real story. The rivalry between steel and aluminum in the auto sector is mostly a myth.

Cast aluminum has effectively taken over from cast ferrous materials in almost all automotive applications. In the next few years, it is expected that high-strength steels and rolled aluminum will replace most mild steels in the rest of the car. Increasingly, engineers are selecting freely between aluminum and high-strength steel part by part in the chassis. The challenge is not to box out the other material, but to work with fabricators and automakers to enable the supply chain and assembly process to work smoothly with both metals.

To underscore those trends, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Inc. recently broke ground at its Davenport, Iowa, complex on a $300-million expansion of rolling capacity, as well as the first commercial operation of its 951 bonding technology. The company said that most of the new capacity is already secured into the automotive sector, while the bonding technology will be licensed to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their key suppliers.

Novelis Inc. will be the next aluminum maker with a major expansion. The company makes automotive sheet in Germany and at a mill in Ontario. The Canadian plant has been upgraded recently and expanded by 25 percent to 50,000 tonnes per year. Novelis is raising the ante considerably, with plans for a $200-million, 200,000-tonne-per-year mill for automotive grades in Oswego, N.Y. Construction is already under way, and limited production will begin in 2013, with full production expected to come online the following year.....

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