Kobe Steel, Toyota Tsusho explore joint aluminum output in U.S.

TOKYO -- Kobe Steel and Toyota Tsusho, aiming to tap growing demand for aluminum vehicles, are in talks to set up a joint venture to make the lightweight sheetmetal in the United States.

The Japanese companies aim to reach a decision on the project by the end of September, the two said in a joint statement on Monday.

The goal would be to begin production of aluminum sheetmetal for automotive body panels in the United States in 2017. The venture would also make sheeting for automotive heat exchangers.

The move comes as more automakers swap steel for aluminum to develop lighter vehicles that meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards.

Ford Motor Co. is the latest, with plans to make the exterior of the next-generation F-150 pickup, due later this year, out of aluminum instead of steel.

The quest for mpg is expected to drive automotive demand for aluminum body panels to more than 1 million tons a year in 2020, from about 100,000 tons now, the companies said.

Kobe Steel and Toyota Tsusho Corp., a trading company affiliated with Toyota Motor Corp., plan to supply U.S. automakers as well as Japanese and European auto manufacturers in the United States, Kobe Steel spokesman Gary Tsuchida said.

Kobe Steel is already in talks to source master coils for the aluminum sheets from Wise Alloys, of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Wise Alloys is a major supplier of aluminum beverage cans.

Kobe Steel has more than half of the Japanese market for aluminum paneling and is trying to expand into new markets.

In June 2013, it agreed to cooperate with Germany’s Hydro Aluminium Rolled Products to advance development of aluminum use in auto body panels.

And in September, Kobe Steel established Kobelco Automotive Aluminum Rolled Products Co. to produce aluminum sheet for body panels in Tianjin, China. Construction of that plant is underway with operations to begin in 2016.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel

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