The Ford F-150 pickup will switch to an aluminum body late this year, and more mass-market vehicles are bound to follow as automakers try to meet tougher corporate average fuel economy standards.
But aluminum will have to fight for its place on autos with carbon fiber, magnesium and high-strength steel, says Tom Boney, general manager of automotive for Novelis North America, a major aluminum supplier. Boney, 48, was interviewed by Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Q: Does the aluminum industry have enough capacity to supply automakers if other high-volume vehicles, such as General Motors' full-sized pickups, move to aluminum? Will more plants be needed?
A: I do expect there to be more capitalization for meeting the demand on a global basis. I think that's inevitable. I do believe the capitalization timeline fits nicely into the decisions the auto companies need to make. When automakers decide to move into aluminum, they do that three or four years in advance of the model year. In that time, the aluminum industry is quite capable of capitalizing to meet those requirements. Novelis has spent more than $550 million to increase our capacity. We've done that in the United States, Germany and China.
When did the auto industry start considering aluminum for mass-market vehicles?
Around 2009, the conversation fundamentally changed between the automotive companies and the aluminum industry. They started looking forward because of the CAFE requirements and the changes they were going to make.
When the next recession comes, can Novelis use the plants that produce aluminum for the auto industry to make other products?
What we are talking about as far as our investments are just the finishing portion of the aluminum, the CASH lines -- Continuous Annealing Solution Heat treat lines. They take the output from our upstream processes and finish it to the requirements of auto companies. The Novelis strategy is that we are focused on a global basis on three primary markets: the packaging and can industry; the specialties business, such as air conditioners or Apple iPad or iPhone cases and heat exchangers for building and construction; and then the automotive business.
How important will automotive be to Novelis' sales?
Automotive will be an important part of our business. It will grow to approximately one-third of our total business. In our planning horizon, I don't see it dominating our business greater than one-third of our total output.
Ford has boasted that the aluminum alloy in the 2015 F-150's body is "military grade." Is that just clever marketing?
Military grade is a common terminology, and it references the toughness requirements. Ford was not talking about fighter jets as much as they were talking about vehicles such as the Humvee or the Bradley tank. When you get into military grade -- and we are not doing this for the automotive business as far as final testing -- the same basic metallurgy applies. The final testing that gets aluminum to military grade is direct ballistic testing. So it is ballistic and dent resistant.
Land Rover, the largest producer of aluminum-bodied vehicles, says aluminum costs could fall if automakers adopted common manufacturing standards. Do you agree?
We are absolutely in line with that. There are a lot of things that go into that equation. What Land Rover is talking about is [specification] proliferation. And that's where we are right now. The industry is innovating, figuring this out, refining it to even better levels of performance. But naturally, I think it will come to baseline specification [for aluminum sheet metal], which will happen over time.
How does recycled aluminum help cut costs for automakers?
The global economy is saying it wants to use our natural resources more effectively. That's one reason why you are seeing large vehicles go lightweight. It's being done for fuel efficiency. The next step is the manufacturing footprint. The energy saved in manufacturing aluminum through recycled content versus prime is significant. About 95 percent of the energy that would go into a prime product would be saved if you use recycled aluminum. The efficiency and robustness of the supply chain has a lot to do with what Ford and Jaguar Land Rover are doing, which is to make recycling the scrap a strategic part of their manufacturing footprint.
Are there differences in strength and durability between virgin aluminum and recycled?
How many times can aluminum be recycled?
Aluminum can be recycled endlessly.
With the F-150 moving to aluminum, is steel on the way out?
We believe there will be aluminum-intensive vehicles, steel-intensive vehicles and even carbon-intensive vehicles. But the majority will be multimaterial platforms. High-strength steel, aluminum and other products will be competing for the best combination for the design of the vehicle. The advantage we have is we bring the pure physics of being lighter weight than the other metal products available, and we have a very repeatable and robust manufacturing process.
Do you view plastics and magnesium, which could be stronger and lighter, as competition for aluminum?
At the design phase, when automakers are looking at available products, magnesium, plastics, composites, high-grade steel and aluminum all sit there. The decision on the material choice ultimately resides with the manufacturer. When we get involved, we're competing more in the realm of are we the best aluminum supplier for this application?