As our team began our research to deliver this blog post to you, we kept coming across the most engaging content from the same author as we researched “aluminum extrusions,” “high strength aluminum,” and other metallurgical-related topics. We pride ourselves at being great copywriters, but I found myself getting sucked in to articles like “Sheet Aluminum Alloys for Cans and Cars,” and “Achieving Successful Stamping of AHSS” pulling me in with descriptive content, humor, excellent infographics, and most importantly: highly technical concepts and information that was easy to comprehend. Let’s face it: Aluminum, steel, metallurgy, etc. aren’t the most seductive subjects to write about. Because of this, we decided to see if we couldn’t set up a call with this elusive material science whiz, and what do you know? He accepted our call.
Danny Schaeffler, Ph.D. is currently Founder and President of Engineering Quality Solutions, Inc., and Chief Content Officer at 4M Partners LLC. His resume and experience effortlessly exceed the character counts for each field in his LinkedIn profile. And the best part for us; Schaeffler is an independent third party, so he could discuss anything we asked without either party having concern over commercial or competitive aspects.
The discussion began, not speaking of aluminum extrusions and aluminum casting, but of sheet aluminum in respect to automotive applications. Most of us are aware of the evolving use of Advanced High-Strength Steels due to the new advancements of high-strength steel grades enabling the auto industry to keep costs down while still meeting requirements – especially when it comes to fuel efficiency and crash performance.
So, how do high strength aluminum alloys measure up against AHSS in automotive application?
Advanced aluminum alloys are the fastest growing material (second only to steel) in the design of new vehicles going to market. Drivealuminum.org puts it like this: “Low weight, crash absorbent, durable, corrosion resistant, easily formable and infinitely recyclable, aluminum helps save consumers money at the gas pump while delivering cars and trucks that are safer, greener and better performing. Cars and trucks down-weighted with advanced aluminum alloys are more fuel efficient with fewer life cycle carbon emissions as compared to heavier steel vehicles. Aluminum also is a proven force multiplier for powertrain, vehicle battery, aerodynamic and rolling resistance advances. Aluminum simply builds a better vehicle.”
How about a look at the very different approaches that GM and Ford used in regards to light-weighting vehicles through the use of high strength aluminum alloys over the past decade?
The aluminum truck: The Ford F150 cost approximately two billion dollars to create. Ford gutted their Dearborn and Kansas City plants to build new facilities from the ground up, and filled them with tooling, lasers, and robots designed to work with aluminum rather than steel. By doing this, Ford was able to make an extremely high quality body structure, and shed approximately 700 lbs. per vehicle, according to Ford officials. A very bold move which paid off.
GM, just as committed to reducing the weight of their vehicles, decided to go another route. Without scrapping plants and building new facilities from scratch, GM came up with a patented welding approach to allow for greater use of aluminum and steel on the same vehicle. In summary, they’ve married steel and aluminum through spot welding, reducing the need for rivets, and saving roughly several hundred pounds per vehicle.
The GM approach of being able to spot weld a higher melting point material to a lower melting point material allowed them (more or less) use their existing plants and equipment with a fraction of the capital expense of what Ford had to go through. Aluminum costs more, but you’ll use less of it. Advanced High Strength Steel costs more than high strength steel. But the price premium for AHSS is substantially less than the premium for aluminum. 2 very different approaches. Both effective.
It’s fascinating to keep in mind that most of the sheet aluminum and steel alloys used on today’s vehicles were not even manufactured 20 years ago. They weren’t even a glimmer in Mommy Car & Daddy truck’s headlights. Today we are talking about technologies that didn’t even exist until recently.
Final analysis? The automotive industry is one of the biggest drivers for optimized material selection. The need for globally available parts, and sheer volume and complexity of the automotive assembly process is an ideal litmus test. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. Welcome to the roads, high strength aluminum alloys, your steel counterparts invite you into the mix.
Schaeffler sums it up, “Automotive designers and engineers need to understand the characteristics of today’s materials in order to optimize the balance of cost, manufacturing and safety all while creating a car people want to buy.” Which hits the nail on the head of this riveting discussion!
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