Aluminum Revisited

As the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) concludes in snowy Detroit, and inspired by my colleague, Simone Bonino’s post, I thought I would provide some closing comments.

One of the more notable highlights at the show was the introduction of Ford’s F-150 all aluminum body. While this may seem to be a risky choice for such a high-volume production product, it is instructive to explore whether this is truly the case.

First of all, fuel economy requirements for this class of vehicle have to reach 30.2 mpg by 2025. Cutting weight is commonly regarded as the most expedient way to improve fuel economy. Given the contradictory customer and regulatory requirements of safety, added features, etc., one could conclude that a migration to alternative materials was unavoidable.

According to some reports, the F-150 is expected to be 15% lighter than its predecessor. A majority of this change is attributable to the new aluminum body and the new 2.7l EcoBoost V6 powertrain, which in turn could deliver nearly 30 miles per gallon in the EPA’s highway test.

The F-150’s hood is already aluminum, so there is some field experience in aluminum panels. Other notable aluminum-intensive products include sedans from Audi, Mercedes Benz, and Jaguar Land Rover. And let’s not forget the aluminum-body United States Postal Service truck, the Grumman LLV, which has been in service for the past decade at least. This vehicle is another example of an all-aluminum body that has served well for 20 years while undergoing a severe stop-start duty cycle. Hence, this robust example should mitigate some of the “beer can” concerns that are circulating regarding the aluminum F-150. One can only speculate on the aluminum experience that Alan Mullaly brought to Ford from the aerospace industry – but I imagine this may have provided some level of internal credibility within the organization.

Finally, the use of structural adhesives, rivet, and galvanic protection appear to have been addressed as part of this development. Some concern has recently been expressed with regard to maintenance, repair and associated dealer certification. We shall have to wait and see how this unfolds. In short, the use of aluminum is not as risky as one might initially suppose. And, the overall payoffs seem to underscore the merit of aluminum, given Ford’s plan to expand its use across its fleet.

Material substitution is certainly not a new technique in the automotive industry. However, to implement it effectively requires some planning during the concept phase of a vehicle program. As many of you know, it is during this conceptual phase that the highest level of flexibility exists to explore multiple scenarios for developing the most optimal design that meets both functional and commercial requirements. Once an initial design is developed, its integrity must be maintained through multiple iterations all the way through to production such that the system weight savings envisioned indeed materialize. Finally, the lessons learned through one program must be disseminated to the community such that a multidisciplinary optimization process eventually becomes part of the DNA of an automotive manufacturer.

It is important to recognize that such a change requires the intensive use of tools, e.g., solidThinking Inspire®, OptiStruct®, Weight Analytics™, etc.; and processes, like the optimization centers that have sprung up at various automotive manufacturers with the help of Altair ProductDesign. Altair feels so strongly about this topic that we have even initiated our own Enlighten Award for the automotive industry – and welcome new entries from the industry for 2014. I would be interested in hearing from other experts though this blog, and will be watching closely as the new F-150 hits showrooms and roads.

Dhiren Verma
Latest posts by Dhiren Verma (see all)
Dhiren Verma

About Dhiren Verma

Dhiren Verma is Vice President of Engineering Analytics responsible for Altair's weight analytics product offering in North America, including business development and implementation. In his most recent role, he managed client-side services in the US, prior to which he was responsible for Altair's ProductDesign business in India. He holds a Bachelor of Technology from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, an MS and PhD in Engineering from Case Western Reserve and an MBA from the University of Michigan.