Engine cradles, radiator brackets, suspension beams - Eric Winter's team of aluminum specialists can take on any engineering project right up to creating a full vehicle structure.
Trouble is, he doesn't work for a car company, and many automakers still hesitate before using costly aluminum.
Winter is president of the Aluminum Co. of America's (Alcoa) Automotive Engineering Group in Pittsburgh. It is a new engineering services firm within Alcoa and part of the aluminum industry's ongoing effort to sell its lightweight metal to automakers.
In effect, Alcoa offers a package deal: aluminum plus an engineering team to turn it into car parts.
The payoff is potentially greater aluminum purchases by automakers, particularly those who don't have the engineering expertise to use the metal.
'Our charter is to encourage aluminum applications in the auto industry by lowering the barriers for aluminum to take hold,' says Winter. 'We don't sell product. We sell services.'
But while Winter and others like him at Alcoa's competitors are eager to transfer that expertise to the auto industry, automakers are dragging their feet.
Steel is cheaper
Aluminum's biggest wart is higher cost. Aluminum parts typically cost twice as much as comparable steel parts, when the special tooling needed to form and join them are considered.
The average aluminum content of new vehicles sold in the United States is 248 pounds per vehicle, according to Ducker Research Co., a market research company in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Aluminum content is rising and could top 350 pounds within a few years, predicts Ducker, but average steel content still dwarfs it at about 1,700 pounds.
The tradition of aluminum companies providing engineering support dates back to the first use of aluminum in airplanes, says Richard Schultz, Ducker's aluminum projects manager. 'Companies like Alcoa knew more about the design characteristics of their material than their customers,' he says.
After decades of tinkering with aluminum, whose weight in its pure form is one-third that of rolled steel, the auto industry has a pretty solid grasp of how to engineer outer panels such as doors and hoods, says Schultz.
But the auto industry's long ties to steel mean it still lacks all of the expertise to do large quantities of vehicles with all-aluminum structures, says David Andrea, an industry analyst with CSM Worldwide Inc. in Northville, Mich.
'If you look at all the crash models and formability models at stamping plants, the industry has just grown up around steel,' he says.
Pump up the volume
Recent all-aluminum vehicles such as the low-volume Acura NSX and the Audi A8 have added to the industry's knowledge base, Andrea says, but 'the question remains, how do you go from something like the A8 to 100,000-unit volume?'
Winter's mission is to help spread the aluminum gospel to the auto industry even if that does not directly result in sales for Alcoa.
'We will offer our services to anybody who might use aluminum. There's no guarantee Alcoa will get a commercial benefit,' Winter says.
The group's potential customers even include Alcoa's other divisions, which might hire the group to engineer a casting or sheet-metal part. It has done several subassemblies for Alcoa divisions, including the rear suspension cross beam on the current Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde.
However, the brass ring for any aluminum company is a high-volume vehicle with a full aluminum structure. Such a vehicle would rocket aluminum's automotive content to a new level.
So far, Alcoa has helped develop only three aluminum structures for production vehicles: the Audi A8, the Plymouth Prowler and the new Ferrari 360 Modena. All are low-volume vehicles. Others are on the drawing board, but Winter cannot talk about them.
Aluminum structures are the next big hurdle for the metal, says Donald Macmillan, president of Alcan Aluminum Corp.'s Global Automotive Products division. With the structure, 'you're going to the heart of the vehicle,' he says.
Alcan supplies aluminum structure technology to General Motors for its EV1 electric car and has worked with Ford Motor Co. on its all-aluminum P2000 prototypes. More recently, Alcan engineers helped design the liftgate on GM's forthcoming redesigned full-sized sport-utilities.
Alcan is pursuing both strategies, says Macmillan. The company is trying a part-by-part replacement of steel with aluminum; the Chevrolet Suburban's liftgate is an example. Alcan also is using demonstration projects such as Ford's P2000 sedan to persuade automakers to produce a high-volume all-aluminum vehicle.
Any automaker considering an aluminum-bodied car must tackle issues such as material handling, production line rates, forming and joining, says CSM's Andrea.
A typical unit-body passenger car has up to 300 individual stamped parts. Converting all of them to aluminum with the special equipment required for the task would laden the vehicle with a $1,000 to $2,000 price premium, says Ducker's Schultz. And the benefit may be a fuel economy increase of only 2 or 3 mpg.
'It all boils down to how much you're willing to spend to save a gallon of gasoline,' he says.
Other fuel-saving technologies such as variable transmissions and hybrid powertrains could yield much larger benefits at lower cost. Their development is proceeding while aluminum prices are essentially static, Schultz says. 'As those technologies get perfected, the cost of getting one mile per gallon comes down while the aluminum price still stands out there,' he says.
'Aluminum's window of opportunity is open, but it won't stay open for long.'