In the past week, the auto industry has made significant strides to increase its usage of aluminum in manufacturing. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, as this was a theme of Aluminum Week 2012 and Tesla’s aluminum-body Model S won Car Of The Year from both Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine. However, it’s a good sign at the aluminum industry’s growing importance for car manufacturing.
One key indicator of this comes from global aluminum company Novelis. Novelis just announced expansion plans for an aluminum auto sheet plant in China. Novelis is recognized as a leader in rolled aluminum and its products are used in everything from beverage cans (that Coke you’re drinking? Novelis produced the can) to smartphone components to car components. From PR Newswire via Herald Online:
Novelis, the world leader in aluminum rolling and recycling, officially broke ground today on the company’s first aluminum manufacturing plant in China. The $100 million investment is designed to meet the rapidly growing demand for rolled aluminum used in the design of a new generation of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The wholly owned plant under construction in Changzhou in the Jiangsu Province, will have a capacity of 120,000 metric tons per year, further strengthening Novelis’ position as the world’s largest producer of aluminum sheet products used to create vehicle structures and body panels. Startup of the new facility, the industry’s first automotive sheet plant in China, is planned for late 2014.
With the aluminum industry still glowing from Tesla’s award-winning Model S, it’s likely that you’ll see further direct investment in aluminum-based auto manufacturing in the future.
Onward and upward!
Back in July, we told you about Tesla’s Model S – the electric-powered, aluminum-built car that the company considered to be its flagship model following its June release. It impressed critics then, but as we’re closing out the 2012 calendar year, it’s done more than just impress critics — it’s won awards. Big awards, too – like Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Automobile Of The Year. Yeah, that’s pretty significant.
“We can’t say for certain whether Tesla will be able to make that happen. The auto industry is tough enough for a giant like General Motors. What we can say with this award is that Tesla deserves to succeed. It has managed to blend the innovation of a Silicon Valley start-up, the execution of a world-class automaker, and, yes, the chutzpah of its visionary leader. The result is the Model S. It’s not vaporware. It’s our Automobile of the Year.”
Now, to be fair, Automobile Magazine doesn’t mention the word “aluminum” once in its Automobile Of The Year article. Instead, it talks about things like performance, handling, speed, and features. But perhaps that omission is one of the biggest compliments the aluminum materials can receive. After all, if a car’s aluminum chassis can merely be part of the manufacturing process rather than a design revolution, that means that it just might be ready for mainstream acceptance.
With many car manufacturers already looking at aluminum as part of their body manufacturing process, this is more validation that the industry’s on the right path – and with aluminum’s combination of strength and lightweight appeal, safety awards and better MPG aren’t far behind.
The auto industry’s been one of the biggest topics of this blog over the past few months, but we haven’t gone too much into the specifics — it’s just known that the auto industry has seen aluminum as part of its path to lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
GM, however, offered more details about how it’s enabling greater use of aluminum in its manufacturing process. In particular, it has to do with the way the material is welded, as traditionally aluminum is difficult to weld. From GM’s press release:
“GM’s new resistance spot welding process uses a patented multi-ring domed electrode that does what smooth electrodes are unreliable at doing – welding aluminum to aluminum. By using this process GM expects to eliminate nearly two pounds of rivets from aluminum body parts such as hoods, liftgates and doors.
Spot welding uses two opposing electrode pincers to compress and fuse pieces of metal together, using an electrical current to create intense heat to form a weld. The process is inexpensive, fast and reliable, but until now, not robust for use on aluminum in today’s manufacturing environment. GM’s new welding technique works on sheet, extruded and cast aluminum because GM’s proprietary multi-ring domed electrode head disrupts the oxide on aluminum’s surface to enable a stronger weld.”
This process has already been used on the hood of the Cadillac CTS-V and the liftgate of the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon (hybrid editions). We’ll see more of this in 2013, thus promoting greater fuel efficiency and moving towards a better experience from manufacturers to motorists.
A few weeks ago, we told you how the auto industry has begun looking at aluminum for use in its manufacturing – specifically, as a lighter replacement for steel.
Tesla may have hit the market first, but Ford is looking at a change that will represent a bit of a culture shift for its customer base – building the bestselling Ford F-150 truck mostly out of aluminum. From the Wall Street Journal:
“The radical redesign will help meet tougher federal fuel-economy targets now starting to have wide-ranging effects on Detroit’s auto makers. But Ford will have to overcome a host of manufacturing obstacles, plus convince die-hard pickup buyers that aluminum is as tough as steel.”
The change to aluminum will trim about 15% of the truck’s weight – 700 or so pounds – to help it achieve better gas mileage. It’s hard to get into the strength debate in simplistic terms, since treatment and other material properties affect just how “tough” aluminum and steel really are. For a good breakdown, check out this article from yacht designer Michael Kasten.
Aluminum is the future of the automotive industry, and its acceptance really comes down to educating the consumer about its strength and safety properties. In summary, Kasten puts it this way:
“As we will see, the issues of strength are tipped somewhat in favor of aluminum, mostly for the reason of its lighter weight. Being much lighter, aluminum will permit a more robust structure within any given weight budget.”