MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. — Billions of used beer and soft drink cans are the magic ingredient in Dutch aluminum supplier Constellium's strategy for getting more aluminum into North America's vehicles.
Billions of them.
As in 20 billion squashed cans a year.
Never mind who is out there drinking that many beers and soft drinks every year. It's part of a supply chain equation that Constellium has worked out to raise its share of the U.S. market for automotive aluminum.
That's a market well worth pursuing.
In 2010, the North American demand for flat-rolled automotive aluminum was about 100,000 tons a year. By 2025, annual demand will be 1.4 million tons, Constellium forecasts. According to a widely cited market research study published two years ago by Ducker Worldwide, the use of aluminum will grow by 168 pounds per vehicle, to an average of 565 pounds, between 2015 and 2028.
Automakers want lighter cars and trucks. Aluminum is a clear way to achieve that, as Ford Motor Co. did in 2014 when it remade its F-150 pickup with an aluminum body, dropping 700 pounds and signaling to the industry that a new era had arrived.
But incorporating more aluminum means suppliers have to make more automotive- grade aluminum in North America. That means creating more aluminum-sheet production capacity by gambling large investments on plants and machinery in the face of volatile metals tariffs. And until suppliers step forward to do that, it remains a veritable chicken-and-egg issue for automakers rethinking their vehicles with more aluminum.
"There's no doubt the demand is out there," said Chris Smith, president of Constellium Bowling Green, the company's U.S. automotive business unit.
"It's the biggest growth opportunity for aluminum today," Smith said. "Thirty-five years ago, you went from a steel beer can to an aluminum beer can. Now, you're doing that with vehicles. We're involved with something that's changing the face of the aluminum industry and the auto industry at the same time."