KENNESAW, Ga. -- Tom Boney, who runs the automotive business for aluminum giant Novelis, sees a steady migration to the lightweight metal as fuel economy standards get tougher in the years ahead.
If he’s disappointed that Jeep didn’t choose aluminum for the entire body of the next-generation Wrangler, he doesn’t show it. If he is concerned that Chevrolet, GMC, Ram, Toyota and Nissan are sticking with steel for the majority of the metal in their big pickups, he won’t say it.
Automakers are striving to meet the government’s 54.5 mpg average fuel economy standard per fleet that is on the books for 2025. And Boney believes sooner or later all manufacturers will be forced to turn to aluminum for a greater number of body panels to reduce weight and improve fuel economy.
But he understands not every company can do what Ford did to make the switch: That is, tear up plants at a cost of nearly a billion dollars to convert from steel to aluminum manufacturing.
So, if an automaker keeps a steel body-in-white, but switches the hang-on parts -- doors, hoods and trunk lids -- to aluminum, that’s fine with Boney.
“It’s going to be a multi-material industry,” he says at Novelis’ research and technology center here on the outskirts of Atlanta. “We’re glad to be on the same stage as steel.”
I recently took a tour through the facility and saw some of the areas where Novelis researchers are working to perfect next-generation aluminum alloy sheet metal that can win more share in the coming years.
Aluminum alloy is a blend of several elements -- magnesium, copper, silicon, zinc, etc. Finding the right combination of the materials is a lot like baking.
To displace steel, aluminum faces at least two big obstacles in addition to manufacturing hurdles. In the future, aluminum has to become thinner and stronger, and it has to be more formable so that designers can shape future vehicles with deep curves.
Steel got dinged last year when Ford moved the F-150 to aluminum, but the steel industry is offering a greater variety of lightweight products. And it still has one very huge advantage: Nearly all automakers’ manufacturing systems are set up to weld steel to steel. The majority of aluminum body panels are joined with rivets and industrial adhesive, a complex and costly assembly process compared with the spot welds used to join steel.
At a giant convention in Detroit for owners of body shops and collision repair professionals, Cadillac recently showed off a sectioned body of the upcoming CT6 luxury sedan.
The CT6 is one of the first vehicles to mix steel and aluminum in the body structure to add strength for safety and lightness for fuel economy. About 65 percent of the CT6’s body-in-white is aluminum, the rest is steel, some of it new ultra high strength steel. The CT6 cutaway also shows GM’s manufacturing process.