Aluminum producers are bullish on the
automotive sector as the drive toward "lightweighting"
continues to pick up speed.
"We have more automotive programs and
developments going on now than ever before," said Lloyd A.
"Buddy" Stemple, vice president and general manager of
Atlanta-based Novelis Inc.'s North American Specialty Products
Indeed, automakers are so enamored with
aluminum that Novelis likely will have to expand to keep pace
with demand. "With the current rate of product development, we
will need to add capacity to keep up with the lightweighting
needs of our customers," Stemple said. "You just have to look
at the number of programs announced in the last 12 months."
From supplying hood sheet for the GMC Acacia, BMW X5 and
Cadillac STS to being chosen as the lead supplier of sheet for
the stunning new Audi R8, 2007 has been a banner year for
Novelis automotive operations.
Novelis' automotive demand growth in aluminum
is coming in areas like automotive structure and body panels,
although the company also supplies a significant amount of
aluminum components for heat exchangers. The growing use of
aluminum is being driven by several factors, according to
Stemple. "It's a solution for fuel economy, safety and
environmental issues," he said.
Novelis' Fusion process for creating
multi-alloy sheet without traditional cladding is driving
further opportunities for the company. "Fusion opens that
window significantly," Stemple said, noting that the superior
strength and flexibility of Fusion sheet is ideal for
Alcan Inc., Montreal, now officially Rio
Tinto Alcan, also is benefiting from growing automotive
operations. "We expect significant growth in this area, which
is generally exceeding double the rate of the industry as a
whole," a company spokeswoman said.
Aluminum usage in European cars rose to 132
kilograms (291 pounds) per vehicle in 2005 from 50 kilograms
(110 pounds) in 1990, the company said, and is projected to
increase another 25 kilograms (55 pounds) by 2010. Automotive
aluminum usage has been growing around 4 percent annually in
recent years in four principal segments suspension and chassis;
body and closures; bumper reinforcement; and engines.
The growth in bumper reinforcement is one of
the more notable examples for aluminum penetration in the past
five years in Europe, and is now taking off in North America
and China as well. Growth also is coming from suspension and
chassis components. Alcan has doubled production of forged
suspension arms and links during the past four years, it said,
and it sees very attractive growth rates for this segment going
forward. Aluminum wheel sales also are growing steadily outside
Europe, and the metal is winning market share from both steel
and copper in heat exchangers, and iron in cylinder blocks and
heads, the Alcan spokeswoman said.
Both Novelis and Alcan are closely involved
with automakers in developing aluminum solutions as
lightweighting demands become more complex and comprehensive,
the companies said.
"In most projects, we are involved right up
front with the conceptual idea when an original equipment
manufacturer (OEM) decides lightweighting is needed," Stemple
said. "A lot of time and money goes into design and
development, including research, computer-aided design (CAD)
drawings and alloy development."
Alcan is similarly involved in the
development process. "Alcan has the largest research and
development center in Europe," the company spokeswoman said,
citing several joint development agreements that Alcan
Specialty Sheet has signed with key customers, including Valeo
and PSA Peugeot Citroen SA, both based in Paris.
Meanwhile, Alcoa Inc., Pittsburgh, which is
selling its automotive castings business, still sees
opportunities in the automotive segment. "We remain fully
committed to the automotive sector, from forged wheels to our
structures business," a company spokesman said. "The amount of
aluminum in cars has been growing for 30 years and will
continue to do so."
Among the company's most recent projects are
the doors on the new Nissan GTR. In addition to Alcoa's design,
the doors will utilize Alcoa sheet and forgings and even bear
the company's name. Alcoa also is supplying high-performance
forged wheels for the new Shelby Mustang, putting the company
name alongside one of the icons in American automobile
folklore. "Alcoa designed the wheels working together with
Carroll Shelby (the legendary auto designer)," the spokesman
Alcoa's sale of its castings business should
be completed by the end of this year, he said. "The castings
business did not achieve the returns we wanted and would not
without significant investment," the spokesman said, and the
company had concluded that the unit would fare better as part
of another organization.
Castings is the forté of Tenedora
Nemak SA de CV, San Pedro Garza García, Mexico. The
company, a unit of Mexican industrial conglomerate Alfa SA de
CV, spent nearly $1 billion in 2007 to acquire the castings
business of both Norsk Hydro ASA, Oslo, Norway, and Teksid SpA,
Crescentino, Italy. Nemak also is increasing remelt capacity at
its Monterrey, Mexico, facility to expand overall production
"We see potential growth in the market with
our current acquisitions, as well as in other developing
economies in the near future," a Nemak executive said. "Nemak
will continue to add the required capabilities to address
market needs and the company's vision."