Built Ford Tough With Aluminum?

by Don Elliott on July 30, 2012

The Wall Street Journal posted an article on July 27, 2012 that speculates the Ford Motor Company will increase the use of lightweight aluminum in its next generation F-150 pickup truck. The F-150 has been has been America’s best selling vehicle for more than a quarter of a century.

The move to a more aluminum body signals a big risk for Ford. Conservative styling and consistent performance along with the “Built Ford Tough” tagline have kept the automaker’s truck number one. Whether consumers will accept the lighter, more expensive and possibly less “Tough” aluminum as a high percentage of the F-150’s body panels is a question the Ford designers will have to resolve.

Ford’s problem is the same one faced by all auto manufacturers in the United States. The Obama administration has pushed through new CAFÉ standards that require U. S. fleet fuel-economy standards to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The 2012 F-150 averages 17 miles per gallon combined city and highway mileage.

Industry sources say that switching to aluminum will enable Ford to cut 700 to 800 pounds, or roughly 15%, from the current vehicle. The lighter vehicle may be able to attain the same performance as the steel bodied vehicle with a slightly smaller engine, setting up a potential 25% improvement in fuel economy.

Ford has been using aluminum hoods on the F-150 since 2004. Fenders, the cargo box, inner and outer panels on the doors and tailgate, control arms and steering knuckles, and in the cab and passenger compartment are areas targeted for the switch to aluminum.

Richard Schultz, managing director of metals at consulting firm Ducker Worldwide, estimates that it would cost about $1500 in extra material costs to switch from steel to aluminum in the F-150.

The move to aluminum will require significant production changes at the manufacturing level. For example, moving panels on the assembly line is currently being done with giant magnets. Switching to aluminum will require a more expensive and electric power-hungry vacuum device to replace the magnetic tools.

Switching to aluminum body panels could impact future used car values. Body shops are accustomed to working with steel when making auto body repairs. High-end auto shops  have made the move to upgraded welding and refinishing equipment because to the increased usage of aluminum and high-grade steel alloys in luxury brands such as Audi, Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes. Other shops and car maintenance centers will have to make similar changes to accommodate aluminum body repairs on America’s most popular vehicle, if aluminum becomes the standard starting with the 2014 model year.

Ford spokesman Said Deep responded to the WSJ article stating, “It is premature to discuss specific approaches or solutions that we might use for future products.”

Google+ Comments

Previous post:

Next post: