Ford Makes the Case for Aluminum (And Steel)

2015 Ford F 150

DETROIT — Ford made a compelling argument for aluminum this week at the Detroit auto show.

The strong, lightweight material is the most-talked about feature on the 2015 Ford F-150, and the company knows there will be skeptics. But, from the top down, Ford execs are bullish on aluminum.

“Our team is very confident in this launch,” executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. said after the new 2015 F-150 was revealed. “We know aluminum well.”

Obviously, that’s important. But the cost of aluminum—it’s more expensive than steel—is a concern for industry observers. The F-150 has long been the best-selling truck in the United States (thirty-seven straight years), and more importantly, a major profit center for Ford.

Bill Ford was quick to defend the business plan for the new truck, saying: “We wouldn’t be doing all-aluminum panels like we are if we weren’t confident we could be competitive in the marketplace.”

Ford CEO Alan Mulally argued the benefits of aluminum—including strength and lightness—outweighed the costs and risks.

“Pound for pound, aluminum is stronger than steel,” he said.

Still, the F-150 is an extremely profitable vehicle for Ford. And because Ford sells so many of them, economies of scale can be achieved quicker, even though aluminum could cut into the profitability of the truck.

“There’s absolutely more wiggle room,” said Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis for automotive research firm AutoPacific.

Traditionally, aluminum bodies have been generally limited to lower volume sports cars and sedans, but Ford’s use in the F-150 will likely spur others to consider the material everyday cars and trucks.

“This validates aluminum for the mainstream,” Kim said.

Ford acknowledged there will be an education period for its customers—and full-size pickup buyers are often adverse to change—though that could be quickly overcome when the fuel economy benefits of a lighter vehicle become clear.

“The customer may not have been asking for it [aluminum], but will be more than happy to have it,” Kim said.

A similar situation unfolded when Ford added an EcoBoost V-6 to the F-150 lineup. Though skeptics questioned how it would affect the truck’s rugged capability, the combination of power and fuel economy won over many buyers.

Not to be lost amid the commotion over aluminum, Ford is also increasing the use of high-strength (a better type of) steel in the F-150. The fully boxed frame for example, will be 77 percent high strength steel, compared with 23 percent previously.

High strength steel and aluminum combine to help the 2015 F150 slim down by 700 pounds vs. the old model.

And get used to the idea of an aluminum-bodied F-150. Ford product chief Raj Nair said there will be no steel-bodied variants. Creating an aluminum structure is a different process, Nair said, as the adhesives and fasteners are different than a traditional steel unit. He said Ford used extensive computer-aided designing to work around this challenge. Designers and engineers also spent a lot of time on the curvature of the roofline to improve aerodynamics.

This is only the beginning, as Bill Ford hinted other vehicles could use aluminum bodies in the future. Altering a fundamental part of the F-150 is a risk, but the company is acutely aware of that, and Ford seems more than ready to make its case.

As Mulally, a former Boeing executive who knows the material well, said, “We have a lot of experience with aluminum.”

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