SOEST, Germany - A growing number of carmakers view aluminum as a realistic - and cost effective - alternative to steel.
Henning Fuchs, manager of the Alcoa Automotive Structures plant here, said automotive use of the lightweight metal is becoming widespread. Alcoa's Soest plant has helped develop key aluminum projects such as the Audi A8 and Ferrari 360 Modena. Alcoa first provided aluminum for automotive use in the Pierce Arrow sedan of 1923.
In the past, aluminum has gained publicity through glamorous whole-car projects. But the use of aluminum in hidden componentry should not be discounted, Fuchs said. For example, five carmakers have asked Alcoa to collaborate on the design of aluminum door fittings and inner skins. More manufacturers are following BMW's lead into aluminum suspension components. And DaimlerChrysler and Volvo increasingly favor aluminum engine cradles.
A-, B- and C-pillars are becoming a target area for aluminum application, Fuchs said. An aluminum die casting produced by a 3,500-ton Mueller-Weingart press can vary in thickness from 0.08 inch to 0.8 inch. Up to 15 steel components can be replaced by one aluminum unit. That unit can be 30 percent to 50 percent lighter than a steel equivalent and can be manipulated easily and economically in the assembly process - advantages that steel cannot hope to rival.
Fuchs said aluminum has three major roles to play in the automotive industry.
1. It will help manufacturers create lighter, more fuel-efficient small cars.
2. It will help in the development of fast sports car models such as the Lotus M250.
3. It will contribute to critical weight savings in large cars.
Fuchs said Alcoa will supply eight aluminum die castings to a forthcoming low-volume, high-luxury German sedan. That will save the necessary weight to allow the installation of a high-specification interior and extensive communications equipment without loss of performance.
In the aluminum vs. steel battle ahead, every scrap of automotive input counts, Fuchs said. Among its biggest automotive contracts, Alcoa supplies the 80 aluminum elements in each of the 15,000 Audi A8 space frames a year. It also supplies 200,000 aluminum front bumper cross members a year for the Mercedes A class. At the other end of the scale, a handful of prestige Ferrari aluminum structures still represents important business for Alcoa.
And Fuchs does not openly resent the fact that a Swiss rival - Alusuisse - has won the supply contract with Audi for the breakthrough production of the A2 model.
'In this business at this time, success by any aluminum company is a success for the whole of the aluminum industry,' he said. 'It works for us all.'