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Fuel economy drives Ford to aluminum

Keywords: Tags  Ford Motor, steel, aluminum, Michael Robinet, IHS Automotive, automotive, fuel efficiency, F-150 carbon fiber

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ford Motor Co.’s switch to aluminum bodies for its F-150 pickup truck stems from its desire to be a trendsetter and to address looming fuel-economy standards, one industry consultant said.

"(Ford) felt that they needed a quantum leap," Michael Robinet, managing director of Southfield, Mich.-based IHS Automotive Consulting, said during a panel discussion at the American Iron and Steel Institute’s annual general meeting in Scottsdale. "(Ford) felt they needed to do this to answer the call of fuel economy, especially as it really, really stiffens after 2016 and increasingly gets that much more difficult into the next decade." Other Detroit automakers are more hesitant about shifting materials, he said. "Most in Detroit are a little more reticent."

Part of the thinking behind the shift was that the weight-saving measure on the F-150 body would lead to savings in other areas. "If you take several hundred pounds out of the body ... then you save in the frame because you’re suspending less; your suspension doesn’t have to be as robust; your brakes don’t have to be as robust," Robinet said, adding that Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford also felt it could increase payload and towing capacity.

Ford said its move was aimed at boosting the efficiency and performance of the vehicle. "We are using the right materials in the right places to deliver the toughness, performance and efficiency our customers expect from the F-150," a company spokesman told AMM via e-mail. "First, we improved the truck’s frame. It is all-new, with more high-strength steel than ever before. Next, we used high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy throughout the body, which improves dent and ding resistance while saving as much as 700 pounds, giving our customers improved towing, payload and fuel efficiency."

Robinet speculated that the next big shift in materials could come on Ford’s sport utility vehicles (SUVs). "The pickup is a big deal, but ... when they can shift over their (Lincoln) Navigator and Expedition to aluminum around 2017 or 2018 there’s going to be even more weight savings because it’s a much different body," he said.

However, the Ford spokesman said it’s too early to make such an assessment. "It’s premature to discuss what we might do with our SUVs. We treat each vehicle on a case-by-case basis, applying the right material at the right time to improve efficiency and performance," he said.

To hedge against the more volatile price of aluminum, Ford has entered into long-term agreements with aluminum producers. "Ford is very smart," Robinet said. "They went to the aluminum producers ... and basically said ‘we’re going to buy X, we don’t want the price to fluctuate by more than Y.’ And everybody agreed to that."

But the limited capacity of aluminum sheet for automotive provides an opening for the steel industry. "This is not cold-rolled pop can aluminum. This is 6000(-series) sheet that’s heat-treated using a very specialized process. There’s really only so much capacity out there for that," he said.

A challenge to both steel and aluminum could soon come from carbon fiber, with at least one large luxury automaker indicating that it might go "right to carbon fiber" with one vehicle line, Robinet said. "They feel like they can do that."

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