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US Auto Industry Makes More Use of Aluminum - 2004-02-25


The majestic Rolls Royce Phantom makes extensive use of it and so does the fuel-efficient Honda Insight. "It," is aluminum and you'll see lots more of it in cars and trucks in the near future.

Aluminum of the kind used in cars has been around for a century. But since 1991, the aluminum content in North American vehicles has jumped by 113 percent.

Rick Milner, vice president of Alcoa Automotive, a major aluminum supplier to the auto industry, says automakers find several features of his product to be attractive.

"Lighter weight, it's half the weight or less of steel," he said. "It's fully recyclable, which is very valuable in today's environment. And it's corrosion-resistant and easy to work with, which generates benefits for consumers like better fuel economy, lower emissions, high quality of safety and good performance in driving experience.

Mr. Milner says consumers are actually pushing car makers to use more aluminum - not because consumers know or care about the metal, but because they are demanding more comfort, safety and convenience features in their vehicles - what the industry calls "content".

"Content in cars is going up and making cars heavier which makes them more difficult in terms of fuel economy and things, and therefore people [manufacturers] are starting to put more aluminum on cars so they can deliver more content to consumers," he said.

Cost is always a concern for automakers. Mr. Milner compares the price of aluminum with the more widely-used steel.

"Aluminum in the raw material stage is more expensive than steel, and that just has to do with where Mother Nature put it in the ground and how you have to process it," he said. "So we spend most of our time working with our designers and other people to make that cost difference less and less, and in some cases we can make the cost about the same."

Until recently, aluminum was considered hard to work with to form parts and panels. Rick Milner says that is rapidly changing.

"The largest-selling car or truck in the world is the Ford F-150 pickup truck and it has an aluminum hood," he continued. "So, it was difficult to start with, but it's a matter of experience. And now that the car companies have worked with aluminum for a while, they find it not difficult to work with."

Alcoa Automotive's Rick Milner says there's one particularly good reason that aluminum use will continue to rise in new cars and trucks.

"The price of gasoline is going up and down, but mostly up," he pointed out. "So, fuel economy continues to be significant. So that lighter weight and that performance advantage we can offer because of that lighter weigh, I think that there's no reason to believe that that won't continue to grow very, very rapidly."

According to the Ducker Research Company, in 1973 the average weight of aluminum in cars and light trucks in the U.S. was just under 37 kilograms. By 2002, it had jumped to over 124 kilograms. The trend is not hard to discern.

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