Ford Puts Aluminum in the Front Seat

Written by: Katie Pacheco
Written by: Katie Pacheco

For more than 100 years, steel has been the go-to material for the automobile industry. In recent years, however, the industry’s love affair with the iron-carbon alloy has begun to wane. In fact, many automobile giants are putting steel in the backseat to make room for a much lighter material. The new industry showstopper is none other than aluminum. With the advent of new welding technology and procedures, joining strong aluminum alloys has become easier than ever. The driving force behind aluminum’s popularity is how much lighter it is than steel and other commonly-used metals. This characteristic allows for the production of cars that are faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient. All of this translates to a technologically-advanced and cost-effective product that is likely to catch the eyes of car buyers. As a result, many automobile companies are racing to produce the lightest vehicle by incorporating more aluminum into their products. Currently, Ford is leading the race. This week, we explore the unique approaches taken by Ford in its quest to create a lighter, better car.

Ford’s Aluminum Approach
Ford’s approach for creating the lightest car has been to plunge headfirst into the aluminum trend. The company spent a little over a billion dollars overhauling several manufacturing plants in order to build new facilities equipped to work with aluminum. The company focused its efforts on revamping its top-selling F-150 pick-up truck in the hopes of producing a vehicle with a body made entirely of aluminum. Because aluminum can be difficult to join in mass production settings, Ford also had to reconsider its welding techniques.

According to Car and Driver magazine, the company relied primarily on the rivet bonding process instead of spot welding, which is more commonly used within the automobile industry to join aluminum alloys. Rivet bonding is a process that uses adhesives and fasteners to join metals. In this process, a metal-bonding adhesive is applied to the interface of two aluminum plates. The bonded pieces are then squeezed together using a rivet-bonding gun. Although rivet bonding is not a new metal-joining process, it wasn’t considered mainstream within the automobile industry. All that changed when Ford began using it in the construction of its aluminum-bodied F-150.

With the use of rivet bonding, Ford produced and showcased its very first aluminum-bodied car – the 2015 F-150. Different parts of the vehicle are comprised of 6,000 series, military-grade aluminum alloy. The truck’s frame is comprised of 78% high-strength steel, but there’s very little steel to be found anywhere else. In fact, “Just about everything you see on the outside of the 2015 F-150 is aluminum alloy,” declared Eric Peterson, Ford’s marketing manager. Although the 2015 F-150 is much larger than the 2014 model, its use of aluminum has made it significantly lighter. In fact, the 2015 F-150 is a whopping 700 pounds lighter that the 2014 version.

The new, lightweight truck has turned out to be a blaring example of the changing needs of buyers. According to The Detroit News, the truck was “selling twice as fast” as trucks from other automobile companies. However, the company’s sales for the 2015 F-150 lagged behind those of the 2014 model. The process of manufacturing the lightweight 2015 F-150 is much more time consuming than the processes used for the other models of the F-150 pick-up truck. As such, the company has not been able to produce cars fast enough to meet consumer demand.

Alcoa-Micromill-lightHowever, Ford has plans to make the lightweight F-150 even lighter and easier to produce by partnering with Alcoa, an aluminum supplier and manufacturer. Within the next few years, Ford will be using a new aluminum alloy that was developed especially for vehicles. The new metal, called Micromill for the patented process that Alcoa used to create it, is 30% stronger than the aluminum alloy used by Ford to make the 2015 F-150. Micromill will allow Ford to use thinner sheets of aluminum panels without compromising quality. The new alloy is also easier to shape than the aluminum and high-strength steel used in the 2015 F-150 truck. Ford will be using the product to replace more complex parts that were made with steel sheet metal. Ford plans to use the new Micromill alloy on some components of its 2016 F-150 truck. However, they hope to include even more of this innovative metal in the years to come.  Ford told the Detroit Free Press, “We are doing things we have never done before.” It requires a “quantum leap in manufacturing technology.”

Aluminum Takes the Lead in Manufacturing
Ford is not the only automobile company that is replacing steel with aluminum. General Motors, Jaguar, and Mazda are also making the transition. However, these companies are taking the slower approach by joining steel to aluminum, rather than building a fully aluminum-bodied vehicle the way Ford did. Other industries are also following suit in order to reduce the weight of their product and increase performance. Some of these include the aerospace, marine, military, railroad, computer, and biomedical industries. The ever-growing trend has been a massive boon to manufacturers of aluminum. Major aluminum manufacturers are expecting to see the demand for aluminum increase from 11.5 million tons to 24.8 million tons by 2025. According to these numbers, aluminum stands to revolutionize the manufacturing industry.

Do you work in an industry that is experimenting with replacing steel with aluminum? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.