Aluminum is the New Metal in Automotive Design

The move to switch from steel to aluminum in automobile skeleton and body construction is on – big time!  Aluminum has been around for a long time, yet it has been described as “a new material” in car & truck manufacturing. Naturally, a debate rages between aluminum and steel makers as to which metal will comprise most of an automobile’s structural makeup.

Both sides of the automotive metal composition debate have good arguments. Pardon the pun, but weight is carrying more and more weight in the metal debate. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Auto makers want to strip out anywhere between 250 pounds and 700 pounds from each car, or 15% of the weight, to achieve the 7% to 20% fuel-usage reduction mandated by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Other countries, including members of the European Union, are also insisting on greater fuel efficiency, making the drive to reduce weight a global one.”

When it comes to strength and safety, aluminum performs better than you may think. In fact, steel has no major advantages over aluminum. A recent New York Times article points out, “It performs as well as steel in accidents, and it absorbs twice the crash energy per pound of mild steel, or older steel… An aluminum crash rail folds up like an accordion, which is exactly what you want it to do.”

Of course, weight is the big factor in fuel economy. Aluminum is about 30% lighter than steel, depending on the product. With steel accounting for nearly 60% of a car’s weight, a switch to more aluminum has major impacts on a car’s fuel efficiency. Alcoa’s Klaus Kleinfeld puts it this way: “To get to the next step in fuel economy, you have to look at a new material: aluminum.” Alcoa hired about 1,300 people between 2010 and 2011, most of them specifically to support the company’s automotive business. The goal is to double the amount of aluminum sold to car makers and they’re well on their way this year.

Aluminum use is way up in high end cars such as the Range Rover, the Audi A8 & A6, the Cadillac ATS and some Jaguar vehicles. With an all-aluminum body, the 2013 Range Rover is around 40 percent lighter than most of the older models.

Ford is bullish on increased aluminum use in its future vehicle manufacturing. Forbes published an article in 2011 quoting Matthew Zaluzec, Ford Motor Company’s manager for global materials and manufacturing research. “I believe in 2015 and 2020, we will be more aluminum-intensive… It may not be 100%, but it could be more than 50%.” That would be a huge jump: right now, about 8% of a car’s weight comes from aluminum and 57% from steel.”

Vitex is currently producing several different aluminum profiles and machined components for the Automobile Industry. We are excited about the explosive growth of aluminum use in this major industrial sector and the advances being made in automotive fuel economy as a result.