Aluminum moves up

Ford Motor Co.'s aluminum-body F-150 pickup has swept away the traditional hierarchy of automotive metal suppliers.

Since replacing wood a century ago, steel has been the undisputed king. Aluminum and other metals made their living as alternatives that had niche roles and sometimes could substitute for steel.

The aluminum industry has made substantial inroads in automotive use over decades by trading on lightness and corrosion-resistance, gaining even some full-body structural uses on high-end, low-volume vehicles. But steel's low cost, durability and versatility -- including ease of manufacture and repair -- maintained its dominance, enhanced by the development of high-strength alloys that can be lighter.

Ford had to pioneer high-volume production methods and still must address repair infrastructure for aluminum bodies. But the F-150 establishes aluminum as a primary choice for mainstream auto use rather than a secondary option.

Designers trying to lighten vehicles to boost fuel economy will rethink the basics. Metal providers will invest in even more research on new alloys and manufacturing processes.

The competition will be good for the auto business. The industry is at its best when it focuses on innovation.