Ford F-150 Alcoa Connection

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Ford F-150 represents a major shift in automotive production…and it has a Pittsburgh connection

As one of the very first high-volume vehicles to use military grade aluminum alloy in its construction, there is no doubt that the new 2015 Ford F-150 is ahead of its time.

Due out in Pittsburgh area showrooms later this year, the use of aluminum in construction helped F-150 designers and engineers shed 700 pounds off the vehicle’s weight, allowing the use of a smaller engine to achieve even better fuel economy while sacrificing little in terms of towing and hauling capability.

While the new F-150 is sure to be popular with truck buyers in Western Pennsylvania, its creation can be credited, at least in part, to a company that calls Pittsburgh home: Alcoa, Inc. The company not only has its headquarters in a state-of-the-art building on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, its Technical Center located in New Kensington employs more than 600 people and is the largest light metals research center in the world.

“Just about everything you see that isn’t plastic or glass is made of aluminum on the exterior,” says Eric Peterson, Ford F-150 marketing manager. “The bed, the box, the liftgate, it’s all high strength military grade aluminum alloy.

Ford is certainly no stranger to working with aluminum alloys and incorporating them into its vehicles, says Peterson.

“We’ve worked with aluminum in our vehicles for over 20 years, so the new F-150 was a direct result from what we learned over the years,” he says. “We knew the time was right because we looked at it from our customers’ viewpoint. Our customers, like everyone’s customers, always want more, and that is just what the new 2015 F-150 delivers. Ford wants to stay in front and be the leader and that is why we chose an all aluminum construction on the new F-150.”

Aluminum does offer some very real advantages in construction, Peterson points out. While contributing to an overall weight reduction of the new F-150, it also is corrosion resistant so there is very little chance of perforation over the lifetime ownership of the vehicle. That can be very important in colder environments like Pittsburgh, where salt is used to melt ice during the winter.

“Aluminum is also more dent and ding resistant than regular steel,” he adds. “And because it’s lighter, you can use a thicker gauge of the material, which also contributes to making it that much more ding and dent resistant.”

In addition to offering all those advantages, aluminum also enjoys a very favorable image on the part of truck owners, Peterson says.

“The people who use trucks view aluminum as a very lightweight but durable material,” he says. “They know that many over-the-road trucks use aluminum in their construction. They also know that a lot of their tools, or things they use for work like ladders are made from aluminum.”

Obviously, using aluminum in pickup construction makes sense from both a marketing and engineering standpoint. So why aren’t other automotive manufacturers using it in their vehicles?

The answer is: they soon will be.

“I can’t speak specifically about the F-150 project or other projects that are on the board, but I can tell you in general that we are working with a number of automotive manufacturers on large scale transitions to aluminum,” says Randall Scheps, marketing director for Alcoa’s automotive sheet group. “In general, the stamping and forming process is fairly similar, so you can use the same machines. Obviously, you will need new stamping tools, but that’s also true any time you introduce a new model.”

Aluminum bodies do offer a few challenges in construction, but the benefits far outweigh those small drawbacks, says Scheps.

“For instance, joining gets a little more complicated when building an all aluminum body,” admits Scheps. “Manufacturers need to use more adhesives, rivets and other mechanical fasteners.

“But the upside is that you get a much stiffer body structure when you’re done. It’s much stiffer than when you use only spot welds. So it’s a little more complicated. But like so many things in the auto industry today, it’s more complicated but the end product is much better.”

At the Alcoa Technical Center in New Kensington, Alcoa’s automotive customers rely on the depth of expertise the center offers in using aluminum in automotive construction and as a part of automotive industry supply chains.

“We have PhDs who are dedicated to just about every element of choosing aluminum in construction, from corrosion, to joining and forming, to supply chains,” says Scheps. “These are people who have dedicated their entire scientific careers to using aluminum in the automotive industry. And they are located at our Technical Center. It’s an amount of expertise that no other aluminum company on the planet can match.”

The Alcoa Technical Center is constantly coming up of new ways of improving formability. Indeed, the center actually developed a pre-treatment that goes on the aluminum coils before they go to automotive manufacturers. Called the Alcoa 951 treatment, it improves the performance of adhesives that are used in automotive construction.

“Automotive manufacturers actually asked us to license out its use to the entire industry, so any aluminum producer can use it, which we have agreed to do,” says Scheps. “It’s one of the enablers coming out of our Tech Center that will allow the big shift into aluminum.”

Alcoa is now working with all the major carmakers, and all have forecasts that show very rapid growth in aluminum consumptions, says Scheps.

“Ford is obviously out in front with the F-150 leading in the high volume category,” he says. “But all automotive manufacturers have very aggressive aluminum growth plans.”

Just how aggressive? According to Scheps, the flat sheet rolled business, which is typically used in body construction, is forecasted to see 4X growth by 2015 and 10X growth by 2025.

“It is really quite mind boggling that a mature industries like automotive and aluminum could see such growth in such a short time,” says Scheps. “This is the biggest thing to happen to the aluminum industry in decades.”

And it’s happening largely due to the efforts of the brilliant engineers at the Alcoa Technical Center in New Kensington.

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