Roughly a year after Novelis Inc. introduced its Fusion technology, the new process for simultaneously casting multiple alloy layers into a single aluminum ingot is making headway.
The company doubled the number of customers to more than 50 in North America and Europe from 25 at Fusion's debut, according to Roland Harings, vice president of global Fusion business and general manager of the company's Sierre, Switzerland, facility, the second location to get Fusion technology after Novelis' Oswego, N.Y., plant.
Some customers have more than one project in development, giving Novelis more than 200 current Fusion projects, Harings said. Some 75 of those projects are in North America, according to Lloyd "Buddy" Stemple, vice president and general manager of the company's North American Specialty Products Group.
"It's really interesting how quickly Fusion technology was appreciated in the marketplace," Harings said. "The number of customers and products grew more quickly than we expected.
"Some customers quickly see the advantages of the new materials, sometimes more quickly than we do," Harings said. "In the past, they have had to trade off properties for performance. Now they have more options."
Typical applications in which Fusion is already being used are in the automotive sector. Tube stock, end plates, radiator caps, header plates and parts of automotive heat exchangers have been made using Fusion alloys, Stemple said. Such parts are being produced commercially and have already made their way into the marketplace.
To date, Fusion technology has been used to produce components to replace existing clad products. "Real growth will come when we start to replace other than existing clad products," Harings predicted. In North America, that will happen this year; in Europe, the first Fusion product to replace a non-clad product will debut in 2008.
The transportation market is one sector where Novelis sees great potential for Fusion. "Anything that moves can benefit from the combination of strength and friendly surface properties enabled by Fusion," Harings said.
Fusion also might be suitable for the construction market to make architectural panels for use in high-end applications.
Stemple said he sees opportunities to replace stainless steel with Fusion alloys in some applications. "We can create a high-strength material which is finish friendly," he said. "With the nickel surcharge at $2.20 per pound, we can offer average per-part savings of 30 to 40 percent, and sometimes as high as 50 percent."
Using a Fusion alloy also can achieve savings by creating manufacturing efficiencies. "In many cases, we can eliminate the use of another material or manufacturing step," Stemple said.
A typical Fusion alloy is composed of a core metal that defines the mechanical properties of the material, such as formability and strength, and constitutes 80 or 90 percent of overall thickness. The outer layer, which can cover one or both sides of the core material (accounting for 10 or 20 percent of the overall thickness) optimizes surface properties, Harings explained. The surface layer can be chosen for specific properties, including appearance, reflectability, corrosion resistance or bonding ability.
Promoters of the process concede the number of customers and products has grown faster than even they expected.
Novelis continues to experiment and develop new combinations of alloys. Harings said that in these trials, sometimes the end product yields more than the sum of the parts. "In some cases, the Fusion bonding process itself enhances the properties of the individual elements," he said. Some Fusion products have displayed greater formability than their constituent parts, for example.
The company is considering increasing its Fusion capacity to keep pace with growing demand. "At the moment, we are looking at a number of opportunities to increase capacity in the short term," Harings said. "I wouldn't exclude another greenfield plant at this time, but retrofitting existing facilities is less expensive and quicker."
Novelis has a number of facilities in Europe that could be retrofitted. "You can count on it," Harings said when asked if Novelis would proceed with such retrofits, although no timetable or facility was specified.
In North America, there is still room to expand Fusion capacity at Oswego.
Multi-casting technology also might benefit from the presence of Alcoa Inc. whichhas developed its own simultaneous multi-alloy casting technology, known as Smac. The process has been in commercial production for quite some time, according to a spokesman. "Smac is being used right now in a variety of industrial uses," he said.
At Novelis, both Harings and Stemple have been surprised by some of the interest shown in Fusion. "I recently was approached by a casket manufacturer," Stemple said. "I didn't have that particular application on my list." For Harings, it was bathtubs, which he said are frequently made from steel that has been painted or enameled. "I was unaware of the material used there," he said. The bathtub application is in development.