The aluminum can — it’s a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. It holds everything from beer to soda to energy drinks. It’s sold in vending machines, at grocery stores, at food trucks, and even your local big box store. For many people, collecting them is a nice piece of extra change by turning them in at recycling centers.
And yet, how many of us actually stop to think about the engineering and manufacturing of such a vital cog in today’s society? Probably not much. However, writer Jonathan Waldman decided to take a closer look at the life of an aluminum can — and the results may surprise you. From his book Rusted: The Longest War via Wired.com:
When was the last time you paused between sips of your favorite soda and wondered about that can in your hand? If you’re like most people, the answer is likely never. But that seemingly unremarkable object is actually a marvel of modern manufacturing. It is, in fact, a glorious thing.
A few years ago, I finagled my way into Can School, a small industry-only event hosted annually by the Ball Corporation, the world’s largest canmaker. There, in a conference room just north of Denver, engineers chatted about “improved pour rates” and “recloseability” and the “opening performance” of cans. One guy handed me a business card that said “Can Whisperer.” Another wore a shirt that said “Can Solo.” It was a scene of intense devotion, and as such, it was only fitting that the first thing I learned there was that manufacturing aluminum cans is so challenging, and requires such a vast amount of study, design, and precise machining, that many consider cans the most engineered products in the world.
If you drink beer, or soda, or juice, or sports drinks, or if you have ever preserved fruits or vegetables in glass jars, the name Ball probably sounds familiar. The people of the world go through 180 billion aluminum beverage cans a year; enough to build dozens of towers to the moon. Ball makes about a quarter of them. Yet even with that much practice, making perfect 12-ounce cans remains a battle. Throughout the process, the aluminum behaves begrudgingly. It tries to jam the machines. Once filled, it wants to interact with the product inside and change its taste. But mostly, cans yearn to corrode (thereby leaking onto other cans, and causing more corrosion). Rust, it turns out, is a can’s number one enemy—and a can’s only defense is an invisible epoxy shield, just microns thick. (Without that shield, a can of Coke would corrode in three days.) At Can School, I got a hint of what goes into that coating.
You’ve bought a shiny new iPhone 6 but with horror stories of bent phones, you’re afraid to put it in your pocket. Never fear; for $2,000, Gresso has an aluminum case that’s built to withstand the rigors of life in a back pocket. From GSM Arena:
Bendgate is the latest
We’ve been talking about Ford’s aluminum-based F-150 in broad strokes for quite some time now. As we inch closer and closer to the public street date, news outlets are getting more facts and figures about the bestselling truck line in America. Let’s see what USA Today found out in a recent report:
- Sign-makers are working up removable, sticky-film decals because magnetic signs won’t stick to aluminum. You’ll still be able to proclaim, “My kid’s an honor student,” or, “Best Gutter Cleaning in Three Counties” using the new slap-on appliques that independent retailers expect to be selling soon.
- Aluminum body didn’t cut 770 pounds of weight. About 500 pounds. The rest is from lighter steel frame, heavy use of high-strength, lightweight steel throughout the truck. The frame is 78% high-strength steel, up from 22% in the 2014 F-150.
- The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 Ford’s promoting as a good blend of power, mileage will be a $495 option when the truck’s launched late this year. discounted from the $795 sticker price to get dealers to order the engine and buyers to consider it. Power ratings: 325 horsepower, 375 pounds-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. It will be able to tow 8,500 pounds. No official mpg ratings on it or the other powertrains until November. The 2.7 engine also will be offered as the high-performance choice in the new version of the Ford Escape Sport.
USA Today has three more F-150 facts in the original article, so click through to it and find out more about how aluminum has changed America’s bestselling truck.
The country’s bestselling car is about to get an aluminum makeover. And you can bet that the rest of the auto industry is watching.
The Toyota Camry is the bestselling car in America for 12 years running. With 300,000 models sold in the 2014 calendar year, any design change is a big deal — but it’s an even bigger deal when it sees part of the body change to aluminum. From Automotive News:
Toyota Motor Corp. is set to become the next global automaker to begin making the expensive shift from steel to aluminum for a high-volume vehicle.
The U.S.-built Camry, the country’s best-selling car, is slated to get an aluminum hood in 2018, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Toyota’s first foray into aluminum closures in North America will come next year when the 2016 Lexus RX 350 crossover, which is made in Cambridge, Ontario, gets an aluminum hood and liftgate, the source said.
The aluminum sheet for the Camry hood likely will come from a joint venture between Toyota Tsusho Corp., a trading company affiliated with Toyota Motor Corp., and Kobe Steel to produce more aluminum sheet metal in the U.S. Toyota will be among the venture’s first customers, several sources confirmed. Production is expected to begin in 2017 and ramp up to full output at the beginning of 2018.
What does this mean for the aluminum industry? It’s no longer a grand experiment put on by Ford and Tesla. Or as Monte Kaehr (chief engineer for the 2015 Camry) puts it, “It’s no secret that the entire industry is aggressively pursuing aluminum.”
As we get closer to the public launch of the aluminum-based Ford F-150, Ford is already ramping up its PR campaign. Part of that is addressing the unknown quantity about how “tough” aluminum truly is. Most people continue to associate it with easily crushed soda cans, but experts with material properties backgrounds understand why it was chosen.
For the everyday Joe, though, sometimes it’s easier to simply see a video demonstration. From HybridCars.com:
Four truck customers have been offered the chance to get behind the wheel of Ford’s new aluminum-built, EcoBoost-powered 2015 F-150.
Ford started releasing last Friday the first of four videos in the “You Test” series; these videos will show, said Ford, how these customers tested the all-new F-150 at www.BuiltToughTest.com.
The company explained these truck customers were selected from more than 15,000 submissions, in which entrants described how they would test the toughness of the new F-150 pickup.
“Our four winners demonstrate how Built Ford Tough isn’t simply a tagline – it’s our brand commitment that F-150 gets the job done, day in and day out,” said Doug Scott, Ford Truck Group marketing manager. “The videos show real-world testing beyond testing already conducted by Ford engineers. This is what matters most – serving our customers.”
With the public on-sale date fast approaching for the F-150,Ford has begun overhauling its manufacturing plants to prepare for the rapid ramp-up for large-scale production of the aluminum-based vehicle. The last of the previous year’s models are finished, and beginning earlier this week, the focus switched to implementing and integrating new equipment to oversee the aluminum manufacturing process. From Bloomberg:
Ford Motor Co. (F), the second-largest U.S. automaker, has begun an eight-week closure of its Dearborn, Michigan, F-150 pickup plant to overhaul it for a new, aluminum-bodied version of the top-selling vehicle line in the U.S.
“This is historic for the industry, not just for Ford,” Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas, told reporters today at the company’s product development center in Dearborn. “To take the No. 1 selling vehicle for 32 years — it will be 33 soon — and convert it like this, at this volume, to aluminum, is historic and unprecedented.”
Michigan workers assembled their last 2014 F-150 early on Aug. 22 and crews began tearing up the plant to make way for the new equipment necessary to manufacture parts out of aluminum, Hinrichs said. The conversion began one day ahead of schedule, he said, and this weekend, 1,100 trucks will stream into the plant to deliver the new tools. By mid-October, the factory will be building the “production version” of the 2015 model, he said.
“This is a massive undertaking, one of the bigger logistical challenges we’ve ever seen,” Hinrichs said. “It’s been orchestrated literally by the minute, by the truckload.”
This is just the first step for Ford as the company re-evaluates its North American manufacturing plan. For more details, read the entire Bloomberg article.
Steel may have been the flag-bearer for years and years, but then along came aluminum. And with much resistance, the industry reluctantly gave aluminum a try. Soon, the transition was tangible and the result was a manufacturing revolution.
Sound familiar? Given all the hype and news about the Ford F-150, you’d probably think that we were discussing the auto industry. However, the Motley Fool gives us a history lesson on how this happened before:
The year was 1934. After lots of coaxing, the American Can Co. finally persuaded Krueger Brewing to try selling its beer in steel cans. It worked, and by the end of 1935 23 different brewers were selling their beer in steel cans, which were easier to sell because they were lighter and more compact than bottles and quicker to fill.
Steel, however, was pushed out of the market in the 1970s after Coors (NYSE: TAP ) developed the first aluminum beer can. These were cheaper to produce, even lighter in weight, and took less time to chill. The nationwide switch to aluminum cans created a major structural demand shift for the aluminum industry.
That same structural shift is about to happen again. This time, the Ford (NYSE: F ) F-150 is replacing 1,500 pounds of steel with 900 pounds of aluminum in the all-new 2015 model. With this shift, aluminum appears poised to slowly take over the auto industry, much like it took over the beer can industry a few decades ago.
Aluminum has slowly been pushing steel out of cars for decades. In 1975 less than 100 pounds of aluminum could be found in the average car. Today that number has risen to 343 pounds of aluminum.
The rest of the article focuses on the differences in material properties between steel and aluminum. Together, it makes a valid argument as to why manufacturers are starting to see aluminum as the smart choice.
With such an intense focus on the auto industry and the launch of the Ford F-150, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: that aluminum as a whole is used many different types of manufacturing all over the world. From that perspective, the momentum is as strong — if not more — than the microcosm of the auto industry. CNBC recently highlighted this in a report, and the outlook is very positive.
As sentiment turns increasingly bullish towards aluminum amid a backdrop of tight supply, analysts say the once-shunned base metal is finally at a turning point.
The metal has been trading near seventeen-month highs above $2,000 per ton in recent weeks and entered a bull market in late July, up more than 20 percent since a 2014 low of $1,677 in February.
“We’re probably now at a point where the aluminum market may be turning and that has everything to do with supply shutting down in China and as supply-demand re-balances across the entire industry,” Gaurav Sodhi, resources analyst at Intelligent Investor, told CNBC on Thursday.
For a more detailed look at the world aluminum market, including the impact of recent movement in the Chinese manufacturing industry, see CNBC’s full article.